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Beyond ‘O.J.:’ How ESPN Became The Most Powerful Platform for Docs To Make a Difference

ESPN won their first Oscar last night, but Ezra Edelman's masterpiece isn't their first film to tackle big issues and reach a huge audience outside the liberal bubble.

"OJ: Made in America"

“OJ: Made in America”

ESPN

Ezra Edelman’s “O.J.: Made in America” won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature last night at the 2017 Academy Awards. It was a major coup for ESPN, a media behemoth known for live sports events and shows, not movies. Yet what is more remarkable about “O.J.” is how many people have seen the clear-eyed, seven-hour-and-forty-five-minute historical examination of race in America.

READ MORE: Oscar Nominated Filmmakers Take Us Inside Their Artistic Process

From its June 11 premiere through the month of July, 41 million viewers tuned into watch one of the 40 telecasts of “O.J.” on ABC, ESPN, and ESPN2. An additional 3.4 million unique viewers streamed the doc through the network’s streaming app WatchESPN. And while total viewership numbers are unavailable for Cable VOD, ESPN told IndieWire the film has seen at least 7.1 million transactions. Not included in these numbers are how many viewers watched the film in theaters, on Hulu this August, Viceland this winter, or ESPN’s re-airing in the lead up to the Academy Awards.

Edelman finds the film’s popularity shocking.

“The idea that people would engage with an eight-hour documentary is already unlikely,” said Edelman in a recent interview with IndieWire. “Then, the idea that people are gonna engage with an eight-hour documentary that’s about race in America, and for three hours of it is a history lesson? That’s even more unlikely.”

Ezra Edelman and Caroline Waterlow - Documentary (Feature) - 'O.J.: Made In America'89th Annual Academy Awards, Press Room, Los Angeles, USA - 26 Feb 2017

Oscar winners Ezra Edelman and Producer Caroline Waterlow

Lovekin/WWD/REX/Shutterstock

The film is also not a gentle look at race or America. One of Edelman’s objectives in making the film was for the audience to understand why African Americans celebrated Simpson’s acquittal on charges that he murdered his wife Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman. That highly contentious and controversial moment in 1996 highlights the sharp racial divide in this country.

It’s the type of content audiences at film festivals and arthouse theaters might expect. It’s not what you would expect from ESPN, which has a wide mainstream audience that reaches deep into red-state America.

“This is where I think the reach of ESPN, in a weird way, is sort of subversive,” said Edelman. “Everyone watches ESPN, and so people who otherwise would not engage in a story that involves a lot of the issues of this film are lured into it. [Sports] is the one unifying thing in our country where the proverbial red and blue states can all enjoy it together.”

While the size and scope of “O.J.” is unique, it is hardly the first time ESPN has tackled larger cultural issues. In the last 10 years, the network has produced 100 documentaries through its “30 for 30” series. Ava DuVernay tackled equal pay for women (“Venus Vs.”), Steve James examined racial divide of his hometown (“No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson”), Eric Drath told the story of America’s first transgender public figure (“Renée”), and Spike Lee took audiences inside the Black Lives Movement on a southern University campus (“2 Fists Up”).

ESPN is even responsible for the best documentary made about Donald Trump (“Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?”), which includes the moment when Academy Award-nominated director Mike Tollin confronted Trump as the former owner of the New Jersey Generals about his role in destroying the former football league. (Trump walked out of his on-camera interview.)

Donald Trump, "Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?"

Donald Trump walks out of his interview for “Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?”

ESPN Films

Interestingly, the idea for “O.J.: Made in America” originated with ESPN, not Edelman; he initially turned down the project.

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