P-word top of the US ratings

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 January, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 January, 1994, 12:00am

HONEY, did you hear that? That TV presenter just said the P-word - four times.'' ''Then turn it over to another channel.'' ''I did. They're all saying it too.'' That domestic, prime-time exchange must surely have been taking place in many households in the United States, from the Florida beachfront to the Dakota wilderness. It has to have been, because rarely can one issue have dominated the country's manic television-watching habit to such a degree.

The strange thing is that this P-word (five letters, ends in s) never used to be the sort of thing you would hear (or see) on television here, apart from on the most daring cable channels in the 3am insomnia zone. Now we have the P-word for breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea, prime-time and late-night entertainment.

The cause of the mania is a demure, poker-faced Venezuelan immigrant called Lorena Bobbitt who has become famous for cutting off her husband John's P-word in the middle of the night.

Few people around the world can by now be unaware that after an alleged history of abuse by the ex-Marine, Lorena flew into a Latin rage last June after he came home drunk and, she says, forced sex on her. As he snored in his post-coital bliss, she came back from the kitchen, removed the organ, then drove off with it.

Luckily for John - although not many women in America may agree - police managed to retrieve the severed P-word at the roadside where she had thrown it, and doctors restored it to its proper home after nine hours of microsurgery.

John Bobbitt was later acquitted on charges of marital rape, but that has not stopped Lorena being heralded as Woman of the Year by the feminist movement.

Although she seems confused and mentally exhausted by the constant attention of cameras, her supporters say she is an example for all women who have to put up with domestic violence - while most men are content to wince at thoughts of Lorena's Vengeance,and crack one of the scores of Bobbitt jokes during the barroom rounds.

Both parties in the case have (naturally) found themselves in the company of agents more than willing to help negotiate television appearances, books and made-for-television movies.

Now she is in the dock, charged with malicious wounding, and the boring suburban backwater of Manassas, Virginia, has been invaded by a media circus usually reserved for Texan cults or bulimic princesses.

One local entrepreneur is cashing in by renting out office space opposite the court to the hundreds of cable-wielding cameramen and reporters, while others are selling commemorative ''Love Hurts'' T-shirts and candy in the shape of, well, you-know-what.

One observer thought he witnessed that supreme moment when the sublime collides with the ridiculous while watching reporters from Comedy Central TV cable channel and the Entertainment Tonight show interviewing each other about the media circus.

The Bobbitts are not alone in bringing the P-word into every living room a potential 1,000 times a day.

Michael Jackson has also been busy talking graphically about sexual organs, not least the week before when he rented his own satellite feed to tell the world how the police had photographed his unmentionable places to check whether those telltale blotches really were there as described by the Los Angeles boy who is suing him for abuse.

More court papers were filed in the Jackson case on Monday, giving a full account of what Michael got up to in the bath - and every prime-time newscast carried it in lurid detail, although if it had been run as such in the National Enquirer it would havebeen dismissed as tabloid smut.

At least Jackson has star appeal, but when all is said and done, all that is separating the Bobbitt saga from a dull tale of blue-collar domestic strife is that very Latin swish of the knife.

Both cases, however, have undertones that go way beyond the courtroom evidence to the heart of the American psyche and the curious way Americans view crime and punishment.

First of all, they prove that America is hopelessly repressed. This open, let-it-be country thinks every Briton is like the butler in Remains of The Day while, in fact, full-frontal nudity was old hat on British television back in the 70s.

In contrast, the blurriest hint of a side view of a bare breast in the new network television series NYPD Blue recently caused such an uproar in the US that some local stations refused to carry it and ABC had to put out a warning before each show - and this was at 10 pm.

Court cases such as the Bobbitts allow stations to satisfy their viewers' unspoken thirst for television smut while packaging it as real-life news coverage. Even CNN, usually out covering the White House or Somalia with stern solemnity, has been carryingthe trial live and virtually uninterrupted - with warts and all details from the policeman who found the severed organ to the surgeon who sewed it back on.

The only detail the broadcasters have baulked at have been close-ups of the medical pictures of the ''evidence'' that were given to the jury - though given their usual appetite for prime-time blood and gore, it is not clear why.

However, sex is not everything in America's love affair with the justice system. Legal battles and criminal cases, in and out of court, capture the country's imagination and boost ratings and circulations like nothing else.

One factor has transformed not only the way Americans see justice, but the way the judicial system is managed - the televising of court proceedings. To Hong Kong, which still potters along under the staid English legal system, the idea is unconscionable.In the US, televising trials is as natural as televising baseball.

Court TV is now the established leader in the field, venturing into courts others don't bother with, and providing much serious legal analysis to offset the voyeuristic nature of much of its output.

It even seeks out parole hearings of notorious criminals; only a liar could say he was not transfixed this week by watching a woman member of Charles Manson's notorious ''family'' weep after being denied parole for the umpteenth time in 25 years.

It may be no coincidence that another trial with far more import than the Bobbitt case - the hearings on Branch Davidians who survived the Waco inferno - has so far had little coverage. The San Antonio judge banned television cameras from the courtroom.

For the same reason, the long-running trial of the men accused of the World Trade Centre bombing gets cursory snippets in The New York Times and is largely ignored on national television. Court sketches are just so unsexy.

Were US attorneys always so up-front, or is it that they have modelled their style for the cameras? Did defendants always cry so much in court in the old days? By the same token, is it a surprise that picking unprejudiced jurors for high-profile cases has become a seemingly impossible task? Of course, John and Lorena Bobbitt would probably have enjoyed 15-minutes of chat-show fame even in countries where courts and television don't mix. But in the US their fame may well last much longer. In the US, whenever there is a criminal act, Hollywood is found lurking right round the corner.