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Hanging on Peterson tale

OK, I ADMIT IT: LIKE MANY Americans, I have occasionally taken refuge in the Laci Peterson story, especially as dissected every-which-way by scrappy cablers. The crime was horrific, and for the families involved tragic, but the characters, the setting, the circumstances were all so mundane as to be weirdly comforting in a world beset by Evil with a capital E.

Though I didn’t watch incessantly, I sporadically caught segments as more and more details of the crime came to light: Scott’s round of golf just days after his pregnant wife, Laci, went missing on Christmas Eve, his affair with unsuspecting blonde masseuse Amber Frey, his constant lies to friends and family, the smirk that he wore throughout the trial.

Not since the O.J. Simpson trial nine years ago has there been such blanket coverage by the nets of a murder trial, nor such a collective gasp over the verdict. Only difference: This time there was almost unanimous applause that justice had been served.

Interestingly, the protagonists lived in a small town called Modesto, which it doesn’t take a Latin scholar to translate, the same normal town that Gary Condit hailed from.

Condit’s situation, involving the former congressman and a missing D.C. intern, had the country pretty much convulsed during the late summer of 2001, and then for obvious reasons disappeared from our screens and newspapers on Sept. 12 that year.

Unlike the Simpson trial, or the Condit scandal, or indeed the upcoming Michael Jackson case, it was the seeming normality of the Petersons’ lives that I found intriguing: What lies beneath the surface of middle-class mores is endlessly fascinating.

The American Dream — the perfect marriage, the comfortable home, the job (OK, so he was a fertilizer salesman) — can for unfathomable reasons turn nightmarish. Much of American literature, not to mention TV shows from “The Twilight Zone” all the way to “Desperate Housewives,” has tapped into this vein.

Perhaps it is also our growing infatuation with “real people” on reality shows — or is it the increasing irrelevance of the daytime soaps? — but the Peterson saga, as it unfolded onscreen, offered more coups de theatre than did many of the fictional shows one has to choose from.

Most importantly, seeing justice done has given us momentary respite from the far greater, and harder to untangle, threats that now imperil the world: Everyone argues about Iraq; most all of us see the Peterson tragedy in the same light.

The news channels, perhaps most persistently Fox News and its nightly “On the Record W/Greta Van Susteren,” spared no pains to get at the story. Ratings for Van Susteren’s show have spiked 100% in the past year, now far outpacing the competish on CNN, let alone that on MSNBC and the sorrowful CNBC.

Similarly, Court TV has been assiduously covering the case, with top anchor Nancy Grace devoting numerous primetime specials to its in-and-outs.

The pay-off: Court TV delivered a 2.7 household and .9 adults 18-49 rating as the verdict was announced Nov. 12, equating to 2.66 million total viewers – the largest audience ever delivered by that cabler.

Van Susteren, who was a trial lawyer herself, attributes part of the fascination with the Peterson case to the fact that it got off to such “an intense start,” right at Christmas 2002 when all the newsies had little else to cover. “Audiences got to know the principals, like Sharon Rocha, and their human, fragile side — and they wanted to follow through to the outcome.”

“It’s also about evil up close and personal, very close to home,” she says, adding that her staff did “the footwork and the digging” everyday and her panelists were “experts in their field, not just yakkers.”

Fox folks wouldn’t say how much was spent to cover the case, but ratings, they say, justified the outlay.

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