Death Row Interviews Draw 40 Million Viewers in China

Image Credit: Courtesy LIC production

While the rest of the world is watching what happens on American Idol, China has been watching what happens on death row.

For the last five years, a surprising show has been building a steady audience now estimated to be at 40 million viewers. "Interviews Before Death" is a government-approved television series hosted by a popular young journalist, Ding Yu.

Each week, Ding Yu goes into a prison to interview a man or a woman awaiting execution.  Some of her subjects have just hours left, others have days.  She speaks to them about the mundane facts of life on the inside as well as the gruesome details of the crimes that put them there. Their stories are broadcast in prime time in China's central Henan province.

Now, the BBC and PBS are airing documentaries that go behind the scenes of filming and production.  The BBC2's "The Execution Factor"  will air Monday night and "Dead Men Talking"  will be broadcast by PBS International.  The latter was produced by the Chinese production company LIC.

PBS warns that the documentary is not for the faint-hearted.

"Almost all of the interviewees are perpetrators of horrific violent crimes, including a gay man who defiled his mother's dead body after having murdered her; a group of career criminals that mistakenly kidnapped a young girl from a poor family but raped and killed her anyway; and a woman who burned her husband to death after having been physically abused for many years. The issues explored are both intriguing and complex. The subject is brutal and sad. One may even say the series itself is exploitative; however, it is Ding Yu's passion for truth that is the driving force for the continued  production of the series."

The trailer indicates that emotions run high. Parents are seen saying goodbye to a son. Nearly half of the prisoners Ding Yu interviews are women and many are mothers.

The films also looks at the toll the series took on Ding Yu.  She has interviewed more than 200 men and women on death row.  She has said she pays an emotional price for her work, telling PBS, "I witness their thoughts before death."

But she also comments freely, at one time coming face to face with a prisoner and telling him, "Fortunately, you are in jail. You are dangerous to society."

The Chinese government reportedly approved the series on the argument it could be seen as a crime deterrent.  In China, according to the BBC, 55 crimes carry the death penalty.  They range from theft to murder.  Amnesty International believes China to be far and away the world leader in carrying out the death penalty.