TV is notoriously weak at imitating life, but it’s brilliant at imitating TV. During the most recent February sweeps period, NBC aired Witness to the Execution, a flawed but intriguing movie about a death-row inmate meeting his end live on pay-per-view. Well, last week Phil Donahue waged a futile legal battle for the right to televise, on tape delay, the execution by ingestion of cyanide gas of convicted North Carolina killer David Lawson.
As a nation of TV viewers we are so inundated with images of violence that it becomes difficult to know where to draw the line. Surely this is the place to start. Yes, executions are dramatized on TV all the time (most gruelingly in last year’s ABC miniseries Murder in the Heartland). But to broadcast the actual death of a human being would set a terrible precedent, one that would be quickly exploited and imitated by the sleaziest elements in the medium. Are you ready for Snuff TV? Donahue, who opposes the death penalty, argued unsuccessfully that the public has the right to see this mortal ceremony. That may be so—but do we have the need?