'Confessions' explores TV's dark side

It was only a matter of time before so-called reality TV sought out - let's call it - "extreme reality."

Shows like "Cops" and "When Animals Attack" paved the way, and the current wave of popular reality programming like "Survivor" got us all ready for nasty messages from real people.

Well, television doesn't get any more "real" or its messages any nastier than Court TV's new "Confessions" (premires Sept. 10, 10-11 p.m., with two back-to-back half-hour episodes). Each week three police videos show convicted felons (or those found not responsible by reason of insanity) confessing to their crimes. These tapes are part of the post-trial public record. Photographs (actual or replicated) of crime scenes are edited in to hold viewers' interest. All the crimes in the first episode are heinous acts of inhumanity.

And that's it. The raw truth. No explanations. Some text rolls onto the screen saying where the felon is now and for how long.

Critics are taking the network to task for failing to provide commentary. So far, the only context for "Confessions" is on Court TV's Web site (www.courttv.com/confessions), which will include analysis from legal experts and psychologists. There's also a documentary in the works, featuring Court TV anchor Catherine Crier.

The executive in charge of production, Art Bell, argues that by broadcasting such a show Court TV itself contextualizes it. "Court TV is 24-hours-a-day dealing with the full range of the criminal justice system," he said in a recent telephone interview from New York. And confessions are an integral part of the judicial process, he says. "If any other network were doing this, context would be a problem."

He says he believes the show will help clarify some of the issues surrounding capital punishment and will contribute perspective to the debate. The prisoners are not being coerced or abused in any way, so the tapes demystify the process of interrogation.

Is there a danger that this programming might inure viewers further to violence?

"We think a lot about the impact of television on viewers, [and] really reducing crime by showing choices and their consequences," Mr. Bell says. He feels "Confessions" will not desensitize viewers, but rather hypersensitize them.

The co-creator and producer of "Confessions," Richard Kroehling, says that prurient details have been edited out of the confessions to reduce the sensational elements. Even so, the content isn't manipulated, he says, as it is for game shows like "Survivor" or cinma vrit offshoots like "Cops."

"[Filmmaker] Sam Fuller said to let the human face tell the story," Mr. Kroehling says. "The exposure of a confession is a mysterious process. Why confess? I've seen everything from bragging and taking credit, to lying, to remorse and looking for absolution.... We wanted people to see what the police and the DA see." The episodes also reveal the criminal mind, Court TV executives say.

Watching these confessions creates a renewed respect for those on the front lines of criminal justice. The crimes are so ghastly to hear about on TV, what must hearing about them in person do to those whose work it is to elicit the confessions?

Why not stick with fictional crime tales? When Sean Penn appeared in the fact-based death-row movie "Dead Man Walking," we all knew he was an actor representing a killer. The performance gave us the necessary distance to think and not merely to react. While the filmmakers for "Dead Man Walking" were clearly against capital punishment, viewers were allowed to make up their own minds about how society should deal with such malefactors.

It's not clear whether confessions presented in the manner Court TV is offering them - with limited context, at best - will really help us think through the issues of crime and punishment. Is it more likely that, however carefully edited, these programs will appeal to the darker impulses of human nature? It's hard to imagine how the confessions could act as a deterrent to others. Nor does the show raise the issue of how these acts might be prevented.

What's next? Televised executions? Some are already arguing in favor of this, though Court TV's Bell says public executions will never be shown on his network.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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