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22 years after his 'final run,' O.J. still has $$$ juice

Live television news coverage changed 22 years ago this week. On June 17, 1994, O.J. Simpson — arguably one of America's most likable celebrities — led police on a long, slow chase from Orange County, California, to his home in the upscale enclave of Brentwood.

The white Ford Bronco chase turned Los Angeles into a circus. Residents rushed to freeway overpasses holding up signs saying, "Run OJ Run!," while inside the vehicle, Simpson held a gun to his head. The nation stopped and watched the whole thing unfold over a few hours that Friday evening. Every reporter in Los Angeles, including yours truly, was on the story.

By midnight, O.J. Simpson was in LAPD custody. He would soon be charged with the bloody murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and a waiter named Ronald Goldman.

Time has passed, and yet the Simpson saga of murder, race, gender and justice has shown it has staying power.

ESPN's "30 for 30" documentary, "O.J.: Made in America," has been both a critical and ratings hit. The first of five parts aired on ABC to over 3 million viewers last Saturday, winning its time slot.

Millions more watched a repeat of the first episode, followed by the second part, on Tuesday on ESPN, like ABC part of the Walt Disney Co. By midweek, ESPN made all five episodes available on demand and for bingeing, including on the WatchESPN app.

The network told CNBC episodes have averaged 2.3 million viewers, 90 percent more than the average audience for "30 for 30." On the WatchESPN app, 266,000 people have watched, the network said. Most of those have only watched the documentary through the app.

Then there's the documentary's impact on social media. "#OJMadeInAmerica has been a top Twitter trend in the United States and worldwide during all three of the premieres (of episodes)," the network said in a statement.

The ratings were even higher earlier this year for "The People v. O.J. Simpson," a dramatic recreation of the "Trial of the Century" on FX. The premiere drew 5 million viewers and an audience that grew to 8 million over three days as people watched the pilot on DVR. That was the largest audience ever for an FX premiere. Throw in other viewing methods like streaming or video on demand, and Fox reportedly estimated there was a regular audience of 13 million viewers watching a crime drama where everyone already knew the outcome.

Police cars pursue the Ford Bronco driven by Al Cowlings, carrying fugitive murder suspect O.J. Simpson, on a 90-minute slow-speed car chase on June 17, 1994, on the 405 freeway in Los Angeles.
Vinnie Zuffante | Archive Photos | Getty Images
Police cars pursue the Ford Bronco driven by Al Cowlings, carrying fugitive murder suspect O.J. Simpson, on a 90-minute slow-speed car chase on June 17, 1994, on the 405 freeway in Los Angeles.

Is there an appetite for more? Would viewers watch a recreation of the civil trial, which found Simpson liable for the murders and ordered to pay $33.5 million? What about his arrest and conviction for robbery and kidnapping in Nevada?

What is clear is that the U.S. is in the middle of a true-crime binge, between the "Serial" podcast, Netflix's "Making a Murderer" and now O.J. Simpson. Nicole Brown's sister, Denise, recently signed a true-crime development deal with NBC News' Peacock Productions. "I am excited to begin working with Peacock and tell the stories of lives that have forever been changed by the criminal justice system," Brown said in a press release.

Almost 50 years ago, O.J. Simpson began making money — sometimes for himself, often for others — whether it was the football program at USC, as a star for the Buffalo Bills or fronting national campaigns for Chevrolet and Hertz. After his arrest, coverage of his two trials made millions for the news media. And as he sits in a Nevada prison, perhaps for the rest of his life, O.J. Simpson's story continues to generate interest and money.

DISCLOSURE: NBC, like CNBC, is owned by NBC Universal.

— By CNBC's Jane Wells. Follow her on Twitter: @janewells