‘Network'--More Real Than Ever
The words are still white hot, like bullets into television’s heart of darkness.
“You are television incarnate, Diana, indifferent to suffering, insensitive to joy. . . .”
“All I want out of life is a 30 share and a 20 rating. . . .”
“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore. . . .”
As the new TV season gets under way, Paddy Chayefsky’s furious, satirical script for the film “Network"--shown Friday on KTLA Channel 5--stands up spectacularly well. But even more than that, it has become frighteningly prophetic.
From warnings of conglomerate takeovers of the networks to predictions of TV sensationalism that now is upon us, Chayefsky’s seer-like black humor often seems closer to reality than even he might have imagined.
This month is an anniversary of sorts for “Network,” for when we first meet the lunatic, Messiah-like TV anchor, Howard Beale, on Page 1 of Chayefsky’s script, the time is exactly 15 years ago--September of 1975. The film was released in 1976.
And before all three networks were gobbled up by new corporate owners, before “trash TV,” before Geraldo Rivera’s satanism special and “A Current Affair,” Chayefsky had it all figured out. He knew what was coming.
Think not? Well, then, as part of your new-season viewing, go rent a video of “Network,” which was directed by Sidney Lumet and stars Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Robert Duvall and Ned Beatty. It will give you useful perspective.
For example, when Chayefsky wrote “Network,” General Electric had not yet bought NBC, Capital Cities Communications had not yet bought ABC and businessman Laurence Tisch had not yet seized control of CBS.
But in Chayefsky’s film, the fictional UBS network already has been taken over by a company called the Communications Corporation of America (CCA).
e new pressures for hit shows are already felt, and the autonomy of the traditionally independent UBS news division is being usurped.
“Who the hell’s running this network, you or some conglomerate called CCA?”, embattled news division President Max Schumacher (Holden) asks the chairman of UBS.
Way before the word “infotainment” was coined, Chayefsky has the UBS entertainment division insidiously worming its way into news-department areas.
When Beale (Finch) flips out and turns into a ratings sensation as “the mad prophet of the airways,” his program is taken away from Schumacher and given to ruthless executive Diana Christenson (Dunaway).
She has a few other series ideas--one called “Vigilantes,” well before “America’s Most Wanted” hit the airwaves, of course.
And she’s hot for a show that opens each week with real footage of political terrorism and then goes into the drama behind it. While the subject matter may be different, the reality-based adventure concept is all over the home screen now in series ranging from “Cops” to “Rescue 911.”
“The American people want somebody to articulate their rage for them,” Diana says. And this was years before Morton Downey Jr. came along.
At times, one gets the unsettling feeling that Diana Christenson may well be the hero of the film to some of today’s TV executives, and that she is probably well-represented at the networks in spirit.
“I’m not sure she’s capable of any real feelings,” says the older Max, her lover. “She’s the television generation. She learned life from Bugs Bunny. The only reality she knows is what comes over her TV set.”
Television was hardly perfect in Chayefsky’s time as a young writer for the medium, when he turned out such works as the classic “Marty” (1953) and “The Catered Affair” (1955).
But by the time he wrote “Network” some two decades later, he clearly was outraged at the directions the promising young art form of TV had taken--the runaway crassness and grossness that had asserted itself.
There still was nothing as gross as “Married . . . With Children” on TV. And the networks--yet to face the threats of cable TV, VCRs, Fox Broadcasting and the explosive growth of independent stations--had not taken on their current air of desperation.
But things were still bad enough and desperate enough for Chayefsky to sense, with spectacular insight, which way the wind was blowing. Most of all, the late playwright, whose works were deeply human, seemed appalled at what television was doing to human beings.
And in “Network,” he attacked as a humanist--even using the mad Beale as a superbly effective dramatic vehicle.
“It’s like everything’s going crazy,” Beale rants to his huge television audience during his program. “So we don’t go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we live in gets smaller, and all we ask is please, at least leave us alone in our own living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my hair dryer and my steel-belted radials, and I won’t say anything.”
That’s when Beale urges his viewers around the country to get up and shout out their windows, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” And they do.
At another point, Beale tells his audience: “Television is not the truth! Television is a goddamned amusement park. . . . Television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats and story-tellers, singers and dancers, jugglers, side-show freaks, lion-tamers and football players. We’re in the boredom-killing business!”
He urges his viewers to stop believing in TV and turn their sets off “right now.”
And then there is Max letting Diana have it, telling her that television reduces all of life “to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death are all the same to you as bottles of beer. The daily business of life is a corrupt comedy.”
Has TV changed much since Chayefsky wrote “Network”?
Yes, but only in the sense that viewers are watching differently--tuning out the Big Three networks in huge numbers and turning to the new alternatives. We all probably watch as much as before.
Still, “Network” is therapeutic. It makes us look with refreshing horror at a medium we all too often watch uncritically. And that’s a wondrous accomplishment.
Just how crazy was Howard Beale, after all?
Enjoy the new TV season.