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Scott D. Pierce: Murder is OK, but don't dare kill a dog

Published July 31, 2013 2:24 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Beverly Hills, Calif.

In the new CBS thriller "Hostages," the family of a doctor who's about to operate on the president of the United States is — you guessed it! — taken hostage. The doctor is told that, if she doesn't kill the president, her family will be killed.

In the first hour, set to air Sept. 23, people are shot to death. A bit later, the hostage takers shoot the family dog.

The humans are indeed dead. Hard to recover from a bullet to the head or a bunch of bullets to, well, various part of the body.

But the dog doesn't stay dead. The writers thought better of their decision to kill the canine.

Somewhat unexpectedly, executive producer Rich Eid didn't deny it when I asked if they had their hostage-takers kill the family dog to prove they were tough and meant business, but then thought, "Oh, crap. People are going to be mad at us because we killed a dog."

"That would not be an inaccurate assessment," Eid said.

The weird thing is that neither TV writers nor viewers flinch when it comes to killing human characters. It would be hard to calculate the body count at CBS alone, what with shows like "Criminal Minds," "CSI," "Blue Bloods," "Hawaii Five-O" and — coming soon — "Hostages."

Yes, it's true that nobody is actually killed. This is fiction. They're actors. Including the dog.

There's empirical evidence about this human-canine conundrum. Testing on new TV shows involves putting an audience in a room and giving them a dial they turn up when they like something and turn down when they dislike something.

There wasn't a lot of movement when the humans were killed. There was a big downturn when the dog appeared to die. And that was reversed when it was later revealed that the doggie was shot with a tranquilizer, not a bullet.

"The dials definitely went up when people saw the dog was alive," Eid said, "so we made the right decision, I think."

This is not a phenomenon specific to "Hostages," of course. All sorts of people were ripped to shreds and eaten by dinosaurs in "The Lost World: Jurassic Park," but the death everyone was talking about at the time was when a T-Rex was released in San Diego and ate a family dog.

How many tears were shed when the dog died in "Marley & Me"?

It's not just viewers who are attached to dogs, it's actors. Like James Brolin, who's starring opposite a pup in the Hallmark Channel's movie "Christmas With Tucker."

"I think God's message is that we get to have five to seven dogs in our lifetime, and they all die to prepare us for our own death," Brolin said. "But that's a real sad reality, isn't it?

"I've lost so many good friends. I see 'Marley' and it all comes back."

Maybe that's why you're far less likely to see a dog die on TV than a human. Or maybe we've just become so accustomed to people being killed on TV it doesn't register anymore.

Scott D. Pierce covers television for The Salt Lake Tribune. Email him at spierce@sltrib.com; follow him on Twitter @ScottDPierce.