Imagine if television networks only cared about ratings, about the price they could charge for the commercial blocks and went as low as possible in the attempt to appeal to our lowest instincts, so that we, despite ourselves would watch their junk instead of something else. This crazy, far-fetched and completely unrealistic scenario is the premise for Sidney Lumet’s movie “Network”.
When Howard Beale (Peter Finch), a longtime news-anchor at the UBS network, learns he is getting sacked for poor ratings, he suffers a sort of breakdown. During one of his last shows he announces on live television that he has been fired and will commit suicide on the next show. While his friend, the news division manager Max Schumacher (William Holden) is stunned and tries to protect Beale, the programming chief Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), spurred by the attention Howard got, wants to exploit it. She sells the idea to management and suddenly Howard Beale has a show where he can rant and scream. Never idle Diana develops the show and in parallel tries to setup a show called “Mao Tse Tung hour” with a terrorist organization where they can film and broadcast their terror attacks.
UBS is a recent acquisition of the larger corporation CCA, who are not too pleased with the deficits made by UBS. Especially the news division is not making enough money and so gets the axe. Diane’s new shows however are making UBS profitable again and so she is a hero, along with her manager Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall). CCA is itself being bought by Saudis and when Howard learns this, he starts ranting on that in his show and he is no longer amusing to the board. Top-dog Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty) convinces Howard that the world is a depressing place run by big business so learn to live with it. Howard picks up on that, it becomes his point on his shows and so, with such a depressive message, his ratings plummet. Management sees no other choice than to let the terrorists assassinate Howard Beale. On live television.
This is a super-sharp satire on the television industry and as grotesque as it is presented, nothing here really feels surprising. Sadly, I am confident this is fairly close to reality. This is of course also why it is funny. We recognize it. Television is stupid in order to appeal to the lowest denominator; the shows know no boundary and we are the cattle to milk. We are there for the network, not the other way round.
What works tremendously well in this movie is that it never goes for slapstick. It keeps it real all the way through, there are no hidden smiles or ironic distance, but characters that take themselves serious. Faye Dunaway in particular as Diane is completely outrageous, but perfectly serious about it. She is real enough to avoid being a caricature, and yet she has given up her humanity to dedicate herself to ratings. She has no filter at all.
Maybe the funniest scene of the entire movie is where the network with their lawyers and the terrorists with their lawyers are negotiating the contract for their shows. Badass terrorists discussing clauses in legal documents. Isn’t this sort of capitalism exactly what they are fighting against? It was hilarious.
Howard Beale, the crazy man on screen, is only half as outrageous as what is happening behind the shows. The cynicism, greed and power games are way crazier than a man screaming that he cannot take it anymore.
“Network” is of course just as relevant today as it was in 1976. Streaming probably has not helped. If television gets too stupid, we have alternatives (I gave up on cable years ago), but the networks seem convinced that lowering the bar enough will bring people back to flow-TV. This means that Network hits home 100% and I can highly recommend it.