You take your dog to the vet. But the assistant is more concerned with Scott Peterson than she is with Buster's rash. "Has Scott got bail?" she asks excitedly, as though thirsting for news from the outside world. Scott? He is a 31-year-old former fertiliser salesman who is charged in California with the murder of his pregnant wife last Christmas. He has highlights in his hair (according to someone who knows more than me about these things) and has received dozens of marriage proposals; and he has become a household name in this country because of the direction being taken by the competing 24-hour news channels.
To give an example, I watched an entire hour of news on Fox last week and, except for a minute's worth of news on the half-hour, every second was devoted to Michael Jackson and the child molestation charges against him. Jackson is currently flavour of the month in this new television celebrity culture. Before him came Scott Peterson, and intermingling with both has been the basketball star Kobe Bryant, charged with late-night rape in his hotel room.
The news channels have discovered that celebrity crime - or, rather, accusing a celebrity of committing a crime - boosts the ratings like nothing else, even war. Peterson's case would have gone down in history as nothing but a very sad instance of domestic murder, had television not turned him into both the boy next door and a glamorous celebrity - the alleged murderer we all know but who (in reality) now faces the executioner's needle. We even know the name of his girlfriend - Amber Frey, for the curious - and that he told her he was a widower when his wife and unborn child went missing.
The breakthrough for this phenomenon was the trial in 1995 of O J Simpson, a former American football star accused of murdering his wife and another man. The news channels have learnt their lessons from the coverage of that case.
The new phenomenon works like this. News programmes such as Larry King Live on CNN compete furiously with Fox, bringing on panels of lawyers and forensic experts to dissect the cases against Peterson, Jackson or Bryant. Their talk is interspersed with footage of the celebrities - a handcuffed Jackson turning himself in, Peterson chatting with his lawyer in the courtroom, Bryant effortlessly putting a basketball through the hoop. The sleazoids sold at supermarket checkouts know what is good for them and follow with ever-new angles on the tragic case ("Scott's gay sex lifestyle", one of them trumpeted).
Before long, consumer demand being what it is, the better-quality newspapers are forced to follow up news stories about Scott Peterson. We know how the bodies of his wife and unborn child were dragged from the Pacific near where Peterson had told police he was fishing last Christmas Eve. We have detailed information about the state of the bodies, thanks to the forensic experts who weigh in. We learn that Peterson had an illegal gun, and that a strand of his wife's hair was found in pliers inside his house. We learn more about Peterson's fishing habits as well as his sex life. The audience soon has an insatiable appetite for any kind of news about Peterson - and trying to sate that appetite means big ratings.
It is all much easier than it would be in the UK because there are no sub judice laws in the US. I can thus refer to Peterson under US law as a "murderer" in a way that would land me before a judge for contempt of court in Britain. Nothing holds back the media here. Thus Michael Jackson can freely be referred to as a paedophile, and a case that was settled (for $20m of Jackson's money, we are told) between Jackson and a 12-year-old boy in 1993 can be discussed in the most minute detail, even though no criminal charges were brought against Jackson in that. To the newscasters, a professional freak like Jackson is manna from heaven - they have to work at it for a while where fertiliser salesmen such as Scott Peterson are concerned.
What is most fascinating is that the lawyers and forensic experts create their own networks of self-serving subcultures. We may not like the forensic man on Greta Van Susteren's show on Fox who tells us the degree to which Laci Peterson's body deteriorated in the Pacific during the winter months, but now we know him like a next-door neighbour, too. And just as Johnnie Cochran - the black lawyer who successfully defended Simpson - became a household name every miscreant wanted to hire, so the cases of Peterson, Bryant and Jackson have spawned a network of celebrity mega-lawyers. Become a regular on one of these shows and, if you don't have it already, you can look forward to a multimillion-dollar legal career.
This is where it can become tricky. A Californian super-lawyer named Mark Geragos told King on CNN that the evidence against Peterson was "damning" - until he was hired as his defence counsel (the free publicity is worth millions to these lawyers, and they often take on celebrity cases for no payment). Geragos is also currently representing Michael Jackson. Another legal superstar, Gloria Allred, was a regular on Van Susteren's show on Fox; now she is Amber Frey's lawyer. She had a part in Jackson's original case and her big line on the talk shows now is that custody of his three adopted children should be taken away from him. Allred also represented a woman who accused Arnold Schwarzenegger of groping her. And did I mention the movie? Coming to screens soon: the life and times of Scott Peterson, with the lead role taken by the heart-throb actor Dean Cain.
So the merry-go-round continues: the television ratings climb as much as the lawyers' incomes, and the Scott Petersons of this world become as famous as Kobe Bryant and Michael Jackson. Geragos came to prominence by appearing on television while representing Bill Clinton's brother, Roger, on drink-driving charges in 2001 and the actress Winona Ryder on shoplifting charges last year. Now, whatever happens to his latest clients, Geragos's career as a multimillion-dollar-a-year lawyer in the LA stratosphere of stars is made - and it is all due to the discovery of the 24-hour television news channels that celebrity crime pays. And if someone like Peterson comes along who is not a celebrity, the solution is simple: make him one, and then watch those ratings soar and soar.