Because 2016 cares not for subtlety, this month marks the 40th anniversary of “Network.” Since its release in November 1976 to wide praise and an eventual heap of Oscars, director Sidney Lumet and writer Paddy Chayefsky’s excoriation of the exponentially money-driven, bottom-feeding tendencies of television news has only grown in renown, as each angry pundit updates the film’s library of prophecies about The State of Television Today.
With the ascent of an actual reality TV star to the U.S. Presidency following a broadcast news cycle that worked for everything but a dedication to public interest, it would seem that this depressing political season has reached the logical end of the film’s apocalyptic forecast, landing on a reality too absurd for even “Network” to dramatize: Howard Beale as President. However, as we reflect on what’s gone wrong with contemporary news media and political culture, it’s important to understand the roles that “Network” itself has played in that same news media and political culture.
In his 2006 director’s commentary, Lumet praises Chayefsky’s ability to “see the future” of a changing news media landscape as television networks came under greater control of multinational conglomerates and their stockholders. The director’s assessment resonates alongside the chorus of the film’s lauded reputation; for decades, it has been praised as a work of keen insight and prognostication. While not inaccurate, this line of thinking curiously positions the relationship of “Network” to a coarsening news media climate similar to Sybil the Soothsayer in “Network”: a prophet observing with comfortable distance from the real action.
However, “Network” has not been some armchair critic of news media. Over time, the film has shaped – even in ways unwitting – our political culture and the ways we understand news and television.
Here are a few ways that “Network” has influenced how we think about the institutions that tell us how to think.
Everybody is Mad as Hell
“Every day, five days a week for fifteen years, I’ve been sitting behind that desk, the dispassionate pundit reporting with seeming detachment the daily parade of lunacies that constitute the news. And just once I wanted to say what I really felt.”
-Howard Beale (Peter Finch)
The film’s most evident contribution to culture is certainly Beale’s rabble-rousing “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore” speech, which has become something of a meme for righteous angry men on television – especially politicians and news pundits, and notably those on the right. During his 2010 run for Governor of New York, for example, controversial Republican candidate (and recent New York co-chair of Trump’s Presidential campaign) Carl Paladino pretty much made the phrase his unofficial campaign slogan, although the substance of that anger revealed itself to largely consist of bigoted bluster.
Conservative infotainment moguls from Wally George to Morton Downey, Jr. to the former Glenn Beck clearly owe a debt to Beale, promising their audiences daily doses of uninhibited truth-telling. At some point, being mad as hell became the “authentic” alternative to professional poise, a way of packaging cultural resentment and creeping paranoia into a kind of no-bullshit candor, a performance of telling it like it is. Thus, it’s unsurprising that in the Age of Trump, Beale is most widely seen as a demagogue, an update of Lonely Rhodes for an era of relaxed journalistic standards.
However, this isn’t the only way Beale has been interpreted. “Mad as hell” has become such a ubiquitous phrase that it circulates somewhat innocuously, absent the passion with which those words were rendered eternal on celluloid. Mitt Romney has said it. It forms the title of a recent MoveOn.org petition. Even Walter Cronkite praised Beale as an example of political principle within the public sphere.
As chronicled by Dave Itzkoff in his book about “Network”, Cronkite asserted at a ceremony honoring Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, “we’ve got to shout these truths in which we believe from the rooftops, like that scene in the movie ‘Network.’ We’ve got to throw open our windows and shout these truths to the streets and to the heavens.”
So, is Howard Beale a demagogue, a populist hero, or simply the orator of a catchy phrase? In his aforementioned commentary, Lumet argues that Beale, the “madman,” is the only character that remains “pure” from corruption. Yet Beale’s purity is tested in his lecture from Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty), who convinces Beale to cease in stirring democratic protest against the corporate mergers that stuff his pockets. This marks a turning point in which the anchor becomes a tool for conglomerate America.
Throughout “Network,” Beale oscillates between the roles of prophetic madman, exploited puppet, and bloodthirsty demagogue. The “mad as hell” speech itself – far from Beale’s breakthrough against broadcast norms – finds The Mad Prophet of the Airwaves at an intersection of these roles: a failing anchor who has attempted to turn anger into ratings-hungry shtick, a vulnerable mind in need of care, and a maverick who has abandoned professional detachment for righteous truth.
Beale is a complex, contradictory, and eventually inscrutable character; he is both the solution and the problem. No wonder his best-known phrase has been adaptable to so many occasions, contexts, and personalities.
Early TV Was Better
“I’m tired of pretending to write this dumb book about my maverick days in the great early years of television. Every goddamned executive fired from a network in the last 20 years has written this dumb book about the great early years of television.”
-Max Schumacher (William Holden)
The 1950s has been coined by TV critics, historians, and industry veterans to be the first “Golden Age of Television,” principally due to balanced content standards for television news and the decade’s groundbreaking, prestigious live anthology programs. As summarized by William Boddy, networks’ growing commitment to filmed series – for which they would sell ever-more incremental units of advertising time – signaled to TV critics “a retreat by the industry from an earlier commitment to aesthetic experimentation, program balance, and free expression.”
Both Lumet and Chayefsky first sharpened their teeth in this then-nascent media landscape, directing and writing live television plays, respectively. Such work would mark their entry into legitimate filmmaking: Lumet made his debut as a film director bringing the television play “12 Angry Men” to the big screen, and Chayefsky’s first credited role as screenwriter was his adaptation of his own television play “Marty.” Lumet was nominated for an Oscar, and Chayefsky won his first.
“Network” is not only Lumet and Chayefsky’s cautionary tale about the future of television, but also a mournful elegy for its past, for what television briefly was and what it could have been. While the subject of “Network” is television news, its director and writer used the film as a platform to lament what they saw as the medium’s decline since its first Golden Age (hence the film’s reality television-esque “Mao Tse Tung Hour” subplot). In his commentary, Lumet reflects on the unique energy that live television brought, and concludes that – upon the networks’ abandonment of this format – he and Chayefsky “never left television; it left us.”
However, the specific means for the film’s media critique is the changing face of television news at the hands of conglomerate networks. “Network” stages its satire by dramatizing a specific turning point in norms for presenting the news, one that is indeed prescient in anticipating the changing FCC priorities and loosening anti-trust laws that would accelerate in the Reagan years. This breaking point is explicated when UBS President Nelson Chaney (Wesley Addy) states to Chairman Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), “All I know is this violates every canon of respectable broadcasting,” to which Hackett replies, “We’re not a respectable network. We’re a whorehouse network. We have to take whatever we can get.”
Nostalgia for 1950s news media plays no small role in “Network” and the larger Golden Age discourse it perpetuates. The film’s very first lines by an onscreen character feature Beale drunkenly reminiscing to Schumacher, “I was at CBS with Ed Murrow in 1951.”
But the place of 1950s news in the history of broadcast journalism is a bit trickier than the relatively unique tradition of television plays in which Lumet and Chayefsky first flourished. Early TV news programs were something of an aberration in U.S. journalism history, subject to both the Equal Time Rule and now-defunct Fairness Doctrine that other forms of news media were not.
Moreover, as Itzkoff notes, “There is a self-admitted tendency in the news business to remember the broadcast industry’s golden age as more pristine and objective than it actually was.” Yet “Network” (and, more recently, “Good Night, and Good Luck”) is a powerful anchor for popular memory of midcentury television as an institution that once served the public interest as it never has since.
Only Film Can Save Us From Television
“It’s an enormous industry. And right now, it’s an industry that’s dedicated to one thing: profit. And the only responsibility they have is to their stockholders. And that, I think, is worth knowing, that what you see on television is what’s getting money for the network. And it’s not true.”
Until recently, television was commonly viewed as a bastard medium. In the above-quoted interview from Chayefsky’s 1976 appearance on Dinah Shore’s “Dinah!,” the writer gives a proto-Chomskyan explanation for why certain ideas are impossible to convey within the capitalist constraints of television. If truth cannot be seen on television, where can it be seen?
Movies have never hesitated critiquing their competitor. From the 1935 Bela Lugosi-starring thriller “Murder by Television,” films have staged fears about the power of the new medium. Before “Network,” Haskell Wexler’s “Medium Cool” used Marshall McLuhan’s famous pronouncements about media in order to examine the fine line between observation, involvement, and exploitation when pointing a news camera at current events.
During the countercultural movement from which both “Medium Cool” and “Network” emerged, the New Left popularized the notion – expressed by theorists like Herbert Marcuse – that advanced industrial society was creating individuals driven by counterfeit needs. With Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), “Network” applies this concept to its ideas about the television generation, portraying her as so distanced from human reality that she eventually comes to see Beale as simply an asset that must be liquidated.
READ MORE: Review: Jodie Foster’s ‘Money Monster’ Wants to Be ‘Network’ for the Occupy Wall Street AgeChristensen would be followed by Chance the Gardener in “Being There,” Max Renn in “Videodrome,” Rupert Pupkin in “The King of Comedy,” and Louis Bloom in “Nightcrawler.” The concept of television as a corrupting, de-humanizing force has grown into a reliable component of the film-about-television genre.
Critiquing television would seem a fool’s errand in a contemporary context where the supremacy of television to film is taken as gospel, but “Network” endures as an influential example of using cinema to stage an argument about other media. Hardly a dispassionate prophet, “Network” popularized ideas about television’s past, its consumers, and its cast of angry characters.
Landon Palmer is a media historian and freelance writer currently completing his PhD in Film and Media Studies at Indiana University.