It’s difficult for a modern audience to understand quite how radical Sidney Lumet’s Network was when it came out in 1976. At the time, writer Paddy Chayefsky wanted to tell the story of a TV network that would go to extreme lengths for viewers. Were he still alive he’d be shocked to see the lengths news organisations go to in order to attract views in the internet age.
Network follows the story of Howard Beale, a newsreader who’s been told that he’s being fired due to poor ratings. Following the news, Beale suffers a minor breakdown, announcing on air that he’ll blow his brains out live on TV in one week’s time. TMZ gold.
After discovering that Howard’s stunt has improved ratings, studio execs smell an opportunity and consider keeping him on to act as the network’s “messianic figure inveighing against the hypocrisies of our times!”
Things get more depraved when Diana Christiansen, the station’s ambitious producer (and main instigator in profiteering from Beale’s mental instability), has the idea to further pep up ratings by including a weekly drama series about an ultra-left guerrilla terrorist group who film themselves robbing banks and committing other acts of violence. Facebook Live gold.
Network was the result of writer Paddy Chayefsky’s frustration with how a poisonous thread was infiltrating television. Its most famous scene depicts a deranged Beale launching into a angry diatribe on air, succeeding in getting viewers to “…go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell: I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Trump gold.
It was sensational at the time, but we’re so immersed in a culture of spleen-venting that the scene’s lost much of its shock value. Check the comments on any Daily Mail Online article or responses to a Sadiq Khan Twitter post to witness the same bile meted out en masse. Network’s “mad as hell” rhetoric is everywhere now, it’s just that yelling out of the window has been replaced with commenting online.
Network’s masterstroke was in predicting the emergence of news as entertainment, ultimately allowing fringe people, thoughts and ideas into the mainstream for the sake of ratings. Today the media is saturated with mad-as-hell commentators, with ranters like Nigel Farage, Katie Hopkins or Stephen Yaxley Lennon having no problem mobilising an angry audience across new broadcasting channels that don’t adhere to the time constraints traditional news outlets once did.
Network ends with the assassination of Beale by his producers (broadcast live, of course) after he encourages his audience to write to the White House to protest the takeover of the network by a Saudi Arabian conglomerate.
If there’s one take away from Network, it’s switch off your computer, TV and radio, go outside and be nice to people. IMO.