'I Witness Video' raises the question of how much grim reality is enough

April 08, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Network television has crossed a new and frightening line. Real-life death is being packaged on NBC as prime-time entertainment. And, so far, the ratings are great.

The show is called "I Witness Video," and it features amateur videos -- but not the slapstick tapes of people falling into swimming pools or babies walking into walls for laughs that appear on "America's Funniest Home Videos." Instead, this show features a Texas lawman being shot to death on a lonely road by an alleged drug smuggler, and an armed robbery suspect being riddled with bullets and shotgun shells by Denver police as he sits in a pickup truck.

The program's grainy images of people dying violent and sudden deaths give new meaning to the concept of shock TV. And it looks as if the series -- which airs for the second time at 9 tonight on WMAR-TV (Channel 2) -- could win a regular spot in NBC's entertainment lineup next fall.

Terry A. Landau, executive producer of "I Witness Video," defended the show in a phone interview yesterday, saying she believes the show helps viewers make sense out of some of the more shocking images assaulting them every day.

"The imagery . . . is astonishing, horrifying, a lot of gut-wrenching things," Landau said. "But I think the criticism is unfair, because I see all this stuff in 10-second bites, 20-second bites [on the evening news]. We're looking behind the story. We're inter

ested in this person. How did he get himself in this pickle? . . . How did it influence other peoples' lives?"

"I Witness Video" is not some aberration in TV programming. It is, in fact, the next logical step for at least two trends: the rise of inexpensive "reality" programming and the technological revolution brought on by the VCR and camcorders.

"Reality" programming -- which includes shows like "48 Hours," "Rescue 911," "American Detective" and "Unsolved Mysteries" -- has become the darling of network programmers mainly because it is inexpensive to produce. A show like "48 Hours," for example, costs less than half what it costs to make a sitcom. And the ratings for such shows have grown this year.

Sales of camcorders continue to show dramatic growth, too. The best estimate is that 15 million Americans now own camcorders. Despite several years of highly publicized camcorder "events" -- ranging from the tape of Rob Lowe's sexual activities in an Atlanta hotel room to video documentation of the beating of motorist Rodney King by officers from the Los Angeles Police Department -- the impact of camcorder technology on such issues as privacy is only starting to be discussed and understood.

Landau, whose background includes producing a series on the Constitution featuring Peter Jennings for PBS, said part of what makes "I Witness Video" more than shock TV is that it raises those issues.

It does raise those issues: Showing anything graphic or shocking tends to raise discussions of larger issues. The question remains whether that justifies showing the shock images. However, NBC said that it has received no complaints from affiliates and that all are carrying the show.

The premier episode of the show, which aired Feb. 23, opened with the story of Constable Darrell Lunsford, who patrolled a stretch of Texas highway favored by drug smugglers. To help provide evidence for arrests, Lunsford mounted a camcorder next to the rearview mirror in his patrol car. Viewers of "I Witness Video" watched tape from that camcorder which showed Lunsford being shot and left to die in a ditch by three suspected smugglers he had stopped for questioning. Lunsford's death was shown four times during the show -- once in slow motion.

Another episode featured a law enforcement officer also stopping suspected drug smugglers. Only in this segment the lawman ends up killing one of the suspected smugglers. This shooting was also repeated for viewers. It was even more graphic.

But most shocking of all was the chase, capture and killing of a robbery suspect in Denver, which was filmed from a local TV news helicopter.

During the chase, viewers see the getaway truck hit a pedestrian who is then hurled into the air. The show then cuts away from the tape to an interview with the helicopter pilot who says, "When I saw that, I said, 'Hey, time out. I realized those were not actors or stuntmen. This is real.' "

The segment then returns to the tape, which shows the chase end with law men firing round after round into the pickup truck where the suspect's lifeless body lies against the --board. It's a little like the ending of the feature film "Bonnie and Clyde" -- only it's real.

With almost no advance press, the show finished 15th among 86 programs in the ratings that week, tying with "Cheers."

NBC said tonight's show was not available for preview. Landau said yesterday that it was still being edited. It will have three main segments, she said. One will feature the beating of a gay man by his neighbors. Another will show how hidden camcorders were used to identify student troublemakers on school buses in Texas. The third will re-examine the shooting death of Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963.

Landau said tonight's lineup is not an indication that "I Witness Video" is reducing the quotient of death it showed on the premiere episode. It will continue to feature violent and sudden death if it meets the show's standards.

"For me there's a criteria: What's the reason for doing the story?" Landau said. "Is there something about our lives and about our times that can be illuminated? If the answer is yes, then, I think that's a worthy story to do."

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