Our infatuation with high-profile celebrity trials is not a new phenomenon. Approximately 150 million people watched as O.J. Simpson was tried for the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, in 1995. With that said, a new trend in our engagement with celebrity litigation has appeared with recent lawsuits involving celebrities such as Taylor Swift, Britney Spears, Johnny Depp, and Amber Heard.
These recent celebrity lawsuits differ in a few notable ways from the famous O.J. Simpson trial. These litigations are civil rather than criminal, and importantly, in all of these cases, at least one party to the lawsuit is a celebrity entertainer. It is no surprise that a high-profile murder trial involving a successful professional athlete like O.J. Simpson drew significant media attention and captivated Americans across the country. The stakes in murder trials are unmistakably high as they carry the potential for lifelong prison sentences – and in some states, the penalty of execution. Moreover, O.J. Simpson’s prosecution uniquely drew public attention from the famous car chase that preceded the trial, which some 95 million Americans watched on TV. Of critical importance, the political climate and racial divide surrounding the O.J. Simpson trial also raised the stakes of the verdict and attracted substantial public interest. Celebrity trials continue to play an important role in shaping society’s views on political issues. For instance, the recent Britney Spears lawsuit became a public battleground for the debate surrounding the politics and ethics of conservatorship.
Yet, Depp v. Heard, a civil defamation lawsuit, lacked the high stakes of criminal sentencing and the overlay of national political and racial divide and still amassed a staggering 330 million viewers for the Law&Crime network. Accordingly, the attention this lawsuit drew seems to suggest a shift in our attitude towards celebrity trials and calls into question which factors have contributed to these shifts.
For one thing, the global COVID-19 pandemic changed the habits of the average American consumer. People spent a greater amount of time watching television during the pandemic. In fact, at one point television media consumption increased to an average of about 3.1 hours a day. Additionally, the viewership of reality TV programs significantly increased. The BBC reported that in the United States in March 2020, “TV ratings for the four major broadcast networks, ABC, NBC, Fox and CBS, . . . increased each week since 1 March, with reality TV shows such as American Idol and Game of Games increasing their audience by more than 30%.” I propose that the contemporary celebrity trial has produced the ideal environment to fuse the inherent theatrics of trial proceedings with the drama of reality television. The celebrity trial has a natural appeal: there is something almost voyeuristic about our society’s interest in these trials and deriving pleasure from watching successful members of society encounter trouble with the law.
Depp v. Heard provides the archetypical illustration of this phenomenon. In this case, both parties to the lawsuit were famous actors. As professional entertainers, they were well-equipped to entertain us throughout the court proceedings. Moreover, the drama is heightened when we know the players. We are more invested in the drama on The Bachelor, for example, when we near the end of the season and have developed a connection with the contestants. Finally, the adversarial nature of the trial allowed the public to indulge in the personal drama and relationship struggles of Depp and Heard. By taking this lawsuit to trial and televising it, the courtroom became the setting of an entertainment spectacle – the courtroom as a movie set with civil procedure directing the cast. This change in the public’s view of celebrity trials may lead to more of them, as celebrities seeking to raise their profile choose litigation as a new form of theater.