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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

Decency Also a Casualty of Dr. Death's Show

November 27, 1998|MIKE DOWNEY

Peter Finch: "I'm going to blow my brains out right on the air, right in the middle of the 7 o'clock news. . . ."

William Holden: "We could make a series out of it. 'Suicide of the Week.' Oh, hell, why limit ourselves? 'Execution of the Week.' "

Finch: " 'Terrorist of the Week.' "

Holden: "I love it. Suicides. Assassinations. Mad bombers. Mafia hit men. Automobile smashups. The 'Death Hour'! Great Sunday night show for the whole family."

--From the film "Network" (1976)


A few nights ago on "60 Minutes"--great Sunday night show since 1972--CBS television gave the masses something they haven't had a chance to see since the days of Wild West hangings, Salem witch burnings and creatures eating Christians for Thanksgiving dinner.

We were offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to watch the end of somebody's lifetime.

Not by accident. No, this was a chance to clear our schedules, pop some popcorn and sit down to watch the "Death Hour," coming up later that night on free TV. All day long, CBS football announcers even reminded viewers to be home by 6 or 7, depending on your time zone, to catch a Sunday night program "you won't want to miss."

Dr. Kevorkian, Medicine Man.


Assassinations will be next. That's what came next in the movie "Network." That's what will come next on the CBS network, or on NBC when it decides to one-up CBS.

Executions? Yes, we will be seeing executions, coming up later on this very channel, including right-up-to-midnight shots from the governor's mansion by the Goodyear blimp.

A producer of "60 Minutes" said he would draw the line at broadcasting an execution, but this is the same producer who said he had no intention of broadcasting an assisted suicide, right up until Dr. Jack Kevorkian mailed him a videotape of one.

If it would boost ratings, CBS would have gladly shown Dr. Kevorkian flat-lining a live turkey before Thursday's meal.

The bad doctor spent Thanksgiving out on bail, having been charged with a first-degree murder, the first one ever to be televised a few minutes before Andy Rooney.

Kevorkian didn't simply assist in the euthanasia, he gave terminally ill Thomas Youk a lethal injection himself. He proudly broke not only his Hippocratic oath but the law. And then he contacted "60 Minutes" and asked, in essence, "So, how would you folks like to see a stopwatch stop ticking?"

CBS took him up on his generous offer.

Its cute promo-commercials told viewers to watch on Sunday a show that could have Dr. Kevorkian "in jail on Monday."

The only thing that was missing--thank goodness this didn't occur a few years ago--was one of those NFL announcers reminding us to tune in to this compelling drama "tonight on CBS, right before 'Murder, She Wrote.' "

Kevorkian, if convicted, could face life in prison without possibility of parole. He won't have to live on death row, although that won't matter much. Any place Jack Kevorkian lives has a shot at turning into death row.

More than 130 "patients" have been ushered into the afterlife by Dr. Death, who has done everything but open up a drive-thru window.

He wants publicity, so CBS obliged him. Its broadcast of a man's death gave "60 Minutes" its strongest ratings of the season--during a ratings sweeps week--and gave Kevorkian exactly what he set out to get: a chance to pitch his cause again before millions and millions of people.

He got arrested again, sure. But this guy gets arrested as often as other guys get haircuts. He wants to get arrested. He seeks it.

You'll notice CBS didn't give the tape to Dan Rather to use on the evening news.

It used it on a "newsmagazine," where it could be promoted, where it could be prolonged, where a viewer could be invited to tonight's premiere of the "Death Hour."


There was only one praiseworthy thing about Dr. Kevorkian's law-breaking life-snuffing being shown on TV:

It wasn't pay per view.

On the other hand, using CBS' approach to news-slash-entertainment, any child of any age who happened to be home watching TV while Mom and Pop were busy elsewhere in the house could easily flip on Channel 2 to see a doctor kill a human being.

CBS once was known as the Tiffany network. No more. Tiffany's is known for its good taste.

Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053, or e-mail

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