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Death by popular vote

Author: Mark Juddery
Date: 06/03/2005
Words: 1048
Source: SHD
          Publication: Sun Herald
Section: News
Page: 78
It's the new gimmick for TV ratings let the viewers decide if a villain lives or dies, writes Mark Juddery.

TWO THOUSAND years ago, in the name of entertainment, the ravenous public could decide whether gladiators would live or die. In October, US television viewers voted on the life or death of Nicole Wallace (Olivia D'Abo), the duplicitous, child-murdering villain of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, who had kept them entertained for years. "This is the chance to do something new in a medium that is more than 60 years old," said Law & Order creator Dick Wolf, "and you don't get that chance very often".

Two versions were filmed. West Coast viewers saw her gunned down; East Coast viewers saw her escape justice. They could then watch both endings on the official website and vote for the one they preferred. "All the fans on the message boards are saying, 'I want to kill her, I hope he kills her'," said executive producer Rene Balcer before the vote. "Once they see the episode, they may change their opinion. It's easy to believe in the death penalty in the abstract. If you're the one pulling the switch, it's a little different."

When the same episode was aired here two weeks ago on Channel Ten, viewers were shown both endings, and voted for their favourite by SMS. The result was announced that night during the following show, NCIS.

Apart from weddings, character deaths have long been the most popular way for TV producers to raise water-cooler conversations and ratings. When The Sullivans' matriarch, Grace (Lorraine Bayly), was killed by a bomb in 1979, and when A Country Practice's Molly Jones (Anne Tenney) succumbed to leukaemia in 1985, viewers sent flowers to the production houses. Even when the rough-as-guts Franky (Carol Burns) was killed in Prisoner in 1980, fans descended on the Grundy studios to protest.

Life has changed since then. Now, regular characters are killed off so frequently that it's no longer so shocking, and they no longer guarantee ratings. In its first 10 years (1984-1994), The Bill killed off only four of its regular characters. But since 2002, Australian viewers have seen the deaths of 12 regulars (five murders, one suicide and six victims of a station fire), and another will be gunned down in the near future.

As death is so common, it's no longer enough to simply kill a character. As the Law & Order crew realise, a gimmick helps. Just before taking a break for the Athens Olympics, Home And Away had a cliffhanger in which one of the characters was shot. Only after the Olympics, with fan excitement at fever pitch, was it revealed that the victim of "the biggest event in Home And Away history" was Noah (Beau Brady).

Home And Away is no stranger to gimmicks. In 2003, they murdered the villainous Angie (Laurie Foel) and offered a $25,000 prize to the first viewer who could unravel the clues and work out whodunit. Result: the series consistently beat Big Brother in the ratings. This was one death that worked brilliantly.

Two shows that revelled in killing characters were Buffy and its spin-off Angel, which was axed last year. "I love killing folks," confessed Joss Whedon, creator of both series. "You always keep that option open to kill them. It's easy to die when you work for me. It's a question of going with the flow and just feeling what really clicks and what needs to be shunted aside. Sometimes you take the thing that people love and kill that instead, because they just don't see it coming."

As Buffy and Angel were fantasy series in which the heroes were vampires, witches and demons executive producer Jeffrey Bell saw it another way. "The beautiful part of our world is that when characters die, they don't always stay dead," he said. "So even though we give a certain finality to these deaths in our world, that doesn't mean they are gone, so people can maintain hope." Buffy and Angel themselves both returned from the dead, through supernatural means. Even some characters in non-magical TV shows have returned, with various outlandish explanations.

Other characters have been so well-loved that they were unkillable. The Bill's "Tosh" Lines was written out of the series in 1998, with a storyline that allowed him to return in the future. When actor Kevin Lloyd died, only days after filming his last episode, this remained unchanged. Tosh will never return, but he will never die either.

Australian series appear to have no such qualms. Much-loved characters such as Blue Heelers' Maggie Doyle (a role that won four Gold Logies for Lisa McCune), All Saints' Mitch Stevens (Erik Thomson) and McLeod's Daughters' Claire McLeod (Lisa Chappell) were not allowed to walk happily into the sunset. "When it's a popular character and the actor does not plan to return, we have to make it clear that they're not returning," says one writer, who has worked on Blue Heelers and McLeod's Daughters. "Otherwise, viewers will just keep asking about Claire or Maggie."

With viewers so hardened by death and most Americans favouring the death penalty, you would think that a villain such as Nicole Wallace didn't stand a chance. Indeed, on an internet poll of US Law & Order fans, 68 per cent voted to kill her. Many protested about the Big Brother-style gimmick, especially as casual viewers could cast a vote. "Not to be undemocratic," posted a fan called "Nikkigreen", "but should those people really be voting?"

So the final tally was a surprise. In the US, 53 per cent of viewers decided Nicole should survive. Australians showed less compassion. Viewers in all states voted to kill her, with South Australia (59 per cent) being the toughest state. Aussies haven't always been so bloodthirsty. In 1968, when Charlie Cousens (Robin Ramsay) fell from a wheat silo in Bellbird, scores of viewers protested and Charlie, like Nicole, was a bad guy! Good or evil, viewers would usually rather let them live.

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