Death By Television

000629 death by television CBS

Forget Survivor. The real road to ratings riches is paved with televised executions. Or is it? Gary Paul Gates, a longtime veteran of CBS News, takes a tongue-in-cheek look at the death penalty.



The recent proposal by the Rev. Jesse Jackson that state and federal executions be televised brought to mind a public service crusade that I was engaged in a few years ago.

At the time our spirited little group (there is no need to identify my co-conspirators) had launched a full-scale campaign to persuade the networks to cover most, if not all, executions live, and in prime time.

We even went to the trouble of drawing up a suggested format for these periodic telecasts. Among other features, we planned to paraphrase - or plagiarize - what was then the standard opening on The NFL Today, CBS's popular pre-game broadcast.

In other words, a typical show in our series would begin with a full-screen picture of the death site and a stentorian, off-camera voice proclaiming, "You are looking live at the electric chair in Tallahassee, Florida where in just a few moments ..."

But alas, our campaign eventually ran out of steam, in large part because so many states had adopted lethal injection as their preferred mode of execution. The general concern among the TV programmers we contacted was that death by L.I. just might be a tad too passive to hold the attention of your average couch potato.

So if we're going to be serious about rallying around the Reverend Jackson's proposal, the first step we must take is to urge the states to return to more vivid ways of putting people to death, such as hanging, electrocution or getting mowed down by a firing squad.

Come to think of it, there's ample cause to regret the fact that television wasn't around in earlier centuries when executions were more protracted and therefore had that much more agony to offer the discerning viewer. Since there's no need to be all that thorough or comprehensive, let's just recall a few of the old favorites.

The ancient Romans, as we know, were very big on crucifixions, and to judge from eyewitness reports that have come down to us, they must have been something to see.

Then later, in medieval Europe, Joan of Arc and other alleged heretics were generally burned at the stake, a most economical means of execution since all that was needed was some kindling and a torch.

By the time of King Henry VIII, decapitation was all the rage. (In fact, two of his wives lost their heads on the chopping block.) At first, this form of execution was administered with a simple, sturdy ax. But then the French - always on the lookout for fastidious refinements - invented the guillotine, which became the biggest show in Paris during the Revolution and the Reign of Terror that followed.

In this century, of course, heads no longer roll the way they used to, although if I'm not mistaken, beheading is still he official form of execution in Saudi Arabia. And perhaps it continues to exist in a few other no-nonsense countries as well.

But here in America, we have to put up with all the whining complaints of the bleeding hearts who oppose capital punishment in general, and thus take the position that if it must be endured, then it should be as humane as possible. Who needs these spoilsports?

Still, it hasn't been all goody two-shoes. As recently as the 1960s, the gallows were still in operation in Kansas, which is where - and how - the two killers featured in Truman Capote's In Cold Blood were executed. And a decade later, Gary Gilmore went to his manly death before a firing squad in Utah.

Both events, I insist, would have made for compelling television, and would have generated boffo ratings. And if, for some reason, the various methods of dispatch cited here do not appeal to you, then keep in mind that there are numerous other possibilities.

Some years ago the Monty Python pranksters put together a skit in which a condemned criminal was allowed to select his own form of execution, and when the question was put to him, he chose to be chased to death by 60 nude young women.

So, over the next half-hour, we were given intermittent glances of the poor devil being pursued over hill and dale by a ruthless bevy of giggling, bare-bottomed damsels. And that, I assure you, was television entertainment at its finest.

  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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