Viking Night: Network
By Bruce Hall
April 16, 2013
Hate what's on television? Well, congratulations - it's all there because YOU put it there. They make so many reality shows, hospital dramas and superhero spinoffs because it's what we're watching. Trust me, if everyone was watching Charlie Rose instead of Charlie Sheen, that's where all the bling would be going. Entertainment and advertising go hand in hand, and it's our eyeballs and our wallets that tell them what to sell us. The problem is not that networks can't make better television. The problem is that most people don't seem care what they watch, just as long as there's something on.
But Sidney Lumet’s Network would have you believe that good television is a right, not a privilege. And at no point does it hold its audience accountable for what it seems to believe is the crime of the century. Paddy Chayefsky’s Oscar winning screenplay goes through great pains to lift the veil of lies away from television’s black, twisted soul. Inside is a hyper-competitive, irreversibly depraved mechanism designed to put profit before people. Your television hates you because you’re a mindless, grinning bag of meat whose allegiance is on sale to the lowest bidder. I guess that's one way to look at it, but at no point are we asked to question our roles as consumers in such a content driven environment.
Network is set at the tail end of television's "golden age" circa 1976, when the airwaves were crowded with three whole networks – ABC, NBC, and CBS. For the sake of fiction we're asked to imagine a fourth upstart called Fox UBS, where things have not been going so well. In fact, if Walter Cronkite is the most trusted man in America, Howard Beale (Peter Finch) of the UBS Evening News might be the most unfortunate. For his lifetime of distinguished service to journalism Beale has been rewarded with divorce, a bum liver, and a tarnished image from years of declining ratings. Eventually UBS has had enough, and orders news division president Max Schumacher (William Holden) to fire his most trusted colleague.
After an evening of bittersweet reminiscence, they agree to a brief transition, allowing Howard a chance to end his tenure gracefully. So the next night on live television Beale announces that because of low ratings, he’s going to commit suicide on air. He’s immediately fired, but convinces Max to pull some strings and allow him one last chance to apologize on air and retire with at least a shred of dignity. His wish granted, Howard promptly deviates from the script and starts screaming obscenities. Red faced and bug eyed, he rants about life, the universe, and everything - and Max lets him do it. In a decade where the sound of a toilet flushing on television was water cooler talk, this was kind of a big deal.