Exactly 10 years later, it's "the summer of the shark" - another cable-news obsession in 2001 - all over again, with the only plot twist this time being that America went gaga for a real-life legal thriller in which the attractive, young white female was not the missing, but the accused.
Shortly before 2:30 p.m. yesterday, Americans crowded around TV sets in offices and in airports and streamed onto the Internet in record numbers for the dramatic conclusion of the case of Casey Anthony and her murdered 2-year-old daughter, Caylee. The verdict - not guilty of the killing, but guilty of lying to the cops - left millions of viewers, who'd been watching salacious coverage of the so-called Tot Mom for months, in a state of shock.
Much less shocking was that so many people - like the 1 million who logged on to CNN.com to watch live video, some 30 times higher than normal - cared about the outcome.
America's obsession with the Orlando, Fla., murder case and its attractive defendant may have seemed over the top - but it was also just the latest in a string of national diversions, from the Levy case to Scott Peterson, a good-looking California man convicted in 2004 of killing his attractive, pregnant wife, to Natalee Holloway, an attractive Alabama teen gone missing in Aruba.
Why can't we help ourselves?
Is it simply viewers' need for a simple morality play, on a human, family-sized scale, to replace the seemingly unsolvable woes of 9 percent unemployment and soaring national debt? Or is it that the television business, looking to woo viewers in an Internet age, have gotten too good at spinning complicated stories into compelling reality-based soap operas for the 21st century?
Pop-culture pundits say that it's both of those, and more.
"For viewers, we live in a kind of reality-TV-fed information society. That's how we process stuff," said Eric Deggans, a media critic for the St. Petersburg Times who's written extensively about the Anthony case. "This was real, it was actually happening, but it had all the elements of a classic soap opera."
Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, agreed that there's practically a checklist of elements that bump what could be just a local murder story into a national tabloid television extravaganza. A case with eight or nine of these TV-friendly elements will likely get elevated, Thompson said, and the Anthony case had at least that many if not more.
"The nature of our media makes something like this inevitable," said Thompson, noting the heart-tugging photos of the adorable toddler, Casey Anthony's seemingly dysfunctional family and odd details like her visit to a tattoo parlor. There were other factors that created a perfect media storm, including cameras in the courtroom, which are allowed in Florida, and the case building to a climax with weekend sessions over July Fourth when little else seemed to be happening.
There was something else: the fact that Casey Anthony was a slender and attractive, young white female, an element that seems present in every legal case that becomes a national obsession, and lacking in those that do not.
"These are the last people that audiences expect to be caught up in a situation like this," said Deggans. Both he and Thompson agreed that if the 25-year-old Anthony had been older or perhaps overweight or with crooked teeth, the case might not have gotten as much attention.
Of course, it is also the ever-changing nature of television and the news media that played a role in making the Anthony case more than a local Orlando story.
No network did more to bang the drums - or reaped higher ratings in return - than CNN Headline News (HLN) and its bombastic prime-time host, Nancy Grace. Ironically, in the early 1990s, CNN Headline News did exactly what the name implies - it offered straight news headlines throughout the day - but the arrival of the Internet made its original purpose obsolete.
Thus, the network switched to heavily opinionated hosts like legal expert Grace or comedian Joy Behar, and focused on emotional, tabloid-style sagas. None proved more successful than the Anthony case - by the end of the trial, HLN was outdrawing all other cable-news outlets in the key demographic, viewers ages 25-54.
The downside was that hosts like Grace and a seemingly nonstop parade of legal experts made the Anthony case into something - a morality play with clear-cut villains and lines of good and evil - that a jury did not see.
TV's overhyped premise - and the emotional escapism it offered - may have been, ironically, what made the Anthony trial coverage so popular.
"We've stared at Casey Anthony so long and so hard that she's been forced to become a symbol of something," wrote Alexandra Petri, a young comedian and pundit for the Washington Post. "Is she a commentary on our attitude toward parenting? Or a statement about responsibility?"
Petri said that in the end people followed the story because everyone else was following the story, but the only thing less satisfying than our struggle to understand why we cared was the outcome.
"Justice? Injustice?" Petri asked. "It's a show, and we didn't like the ending."
But maybe we should have. After all, the American legal system - with its presumption of innocence and its requirement that guilt, no matter what you hear on TV, must be shown beyond a reasonable doubt - worked.
The American media system? Not so much.
And time will tell if we look back on the Casey Anthony case as we do on the Chandra Levy affair - as another national moment of temporary insanity.