A controversial 1994 made-for-TV movie, WITNESS TO THE EXECUTION probes the issues of television violence, greed, and capital punishment.
Jessica Traynor (Sean Young) is a programming executive at pay-per-view network Tycom. The year is 1999, and pay TV revenues are sagging. With 500 channels to chose from, audiences aren't tuning into the movies and sports events that are standard pay-per-view fare. Desperate to come up with a hit,
Jessica conceives the idea of televising a live execution. After convincing her wary boss and co-workers, she persuades government officials by promising a cut of the profits to anti-crime campaigns. Jessica chooses the victim, death row inmate Dennis Casterline (Tim Daly), a convicted murderer
whom she selects because his good looks and charisma will appeal to female viewers.
As expected, news of the planned event sparks a media frenzy. Viewer subscriptions and sales of Casterline-related merchandise net huge profits. In preparing for the broadcast, Jessica spends time with Dennis, and interviews people from his past. Evidence suggesting a police cover-up surfaces and
Jessica begins to believe that Dennis is innocent. She tries to cancel the broadcast but Tycom boss Jake Tyler (Len Cariou) will not pull the plug on the network's golden goose. Even after learning that Dennis is indeed guilty and had been manipulating her to get his case reopened, Jessica tries
to stop the execution. She is too late, and Dennis is electrocuted as millions of viewers watch from the comfort of their own homes.
Like NETWORK, WITNESS TO THE EXECUTION examines television sensationalism and the extremes broadcasters will go to in order to get ratings. It is an indictment rather than a celebration of TV violence. Still, it was attacked--sight unseen--by US Senator Kent Conrad of North Dakota, labeled "snuff
TV" by Advertising Age, and criticized for contributing to the problem of TV violence--the very problem the movie condemns.
The teleplay starts out forcefully. The scenario, set in the not-too-distant future, is a frighteningly plausible "think piece" that raises and challenges questions of ethics. About halfway through, however, the story turns into a routine murder mystery, and the compelling sociopolitical questions
are sidelined in favor of Jessica's sleuthing. The piece regains momentum only after Dennis's guilt is confirmed and the focus reverts to the question of whether the execution should be televised.
Attempting to get away from his clean-cut TV image ("Wings"), Daly has sought out ominous characters (he portrayed cult leader David Koresh in the 1993 TV movie IN THE LINE OF DUTY: AMBUSH AT WACO). Here he trades his boyish charm for brooding intensity, and delivers an electrifying performance.
Young is terrific as the ambitious network exec whose conscience is awakened too late to stop the events that she has set in motion. The production's futuristic elements are minimal, reinforcing the notion that events like these could be looming on the horizon.(Violence, adult situations)
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- Released: 1994
- Rating: PG-13
- Review: A controversial 1994 made-for-TV movie, WITNESS TO THE EXECUTION probes the issues of television violence, greed, and capital punishment. Jessica Traynor (Sean Young) is a programming executive at pay-per-view network Tycom. The year is 1999, and pay TV r… (more)