O.J. Simpson changed the world forever on June 17, 1994, as more than 150 million viewers watched police chase him down live on television. With a flurry of allegations and an ever-evolving mystery surrounding the murder of his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, the major trial saw crime and culture cross over in a manner which has never dissipated.
What rose in its wake was a salacious thirst for raw entertainment — thus, reality TV and the true crime genre were born.
When Gabby Petito went missing, her story became the true crime sensation of the week. Millions around the U.S. learned her name and — with a fierce vigor — brought her to an unfathomable level of fame.
Petito was molded into the it-girl archetype — a young, conventionally attractive white woman with a dark secret — the logline for a soap opera come to life.
True crime is a genre like no other. The stronghold of the O.J. trial changed television forever. Struggling CNBC show “Riviera Live” jumped from a paltry 0.2 Adults 18-49 demo rating — or, 0.2 percent of adults between the ages of 18 and 49 in the U.S. — to 2.4 when the trial was covered, according to Entertainment Weekly (EW) in 1995.
Following the money, CNN added a legal discussion show to its repertoire with “Burden of Proof.” EW also reported soap opera and primetime television ratings fell significantly in this period as viewers diverted their eyes to the most captivating story — reality.
Two decades later, Ryan Murphy documented the story with the 2016 FX drama “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson.”
Brown Simpson’s close friend Faye Resnick used tragedy as her profitable platform, writing a tell-all titled “Nicole Brown Simpson: The Private Diary of a Life Interrupted” the same year her friend died.
Resnick — who later went on to feature on “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” where she was dubbed “The Morally Corrupt Faye Resnick” by housewife Camille Grammer — was an early adopter of this exploitative fame.
The Kardashians followed a decade later. As the tentpole family of reality television, their close ties to the O.J. trial set the stage for how America’s impenetrable desire for glossy crime stories would adapt in the social media era.
The subreddit is fluttered with theories and discussion posts as though Gabby Petito is a character on “Breaking Bad,” not a real woman whose death was just ruled a homicide.
Millions raced to share their theories, to dig up dirt — to make the mysterious disappearance of Petito all about themselves. As though true crime were a porn fetish, people fixated on Petito to the point her very humanity was lost.
In an interview with Insider, a moderator of the Gabby Petito subreddit going by the name of Sunzu, said: “I would hope that people use this enthusiasm, passion, interest, curiosity — whatever it is — to support search and rescue organizations nationwide and share other missing persons information far and wide.”
The disappearance of Petito has led to a domino effect of families of other missing people — particularly people of color — asking: what about our loved ones?
Of the more than 500,000 people reported missing in the U.S. in 2020, more than 40% were people of color, according to the National Crime Information Center’s Missing Person and Unidentified Person Files. Further, Black people make up 35% of missing person cases despite being only 13% of the country’s population.
For the millions who posted their own theories, who acted as eyewitnesses to a story they learned second-hand, the missing people in their own backyard are of no interest.
The viral case of Gabby Petito was never about empathy, but a carnivorous need for people to feel part of something — to see a horrible tragedy and wonder, “How can I make this about myself?”
What started with O.J. Simpson has evolved into a culture where reality and reality TV are inseparable, where desensitization is so strong people forget the stories they lust after are the isolated tragedies families deal with every day.
Next time you exploit someone’s death for twenty minutes of personal entertainment, remember: Gabby Petito’s death isn’t a scandalous season of “American Crime Story” — it’s a family’s tragedy.