Why Network Is The Greatest Anti-Television Movie Ever Made

by Ron Kaufman

"We deal in illusions, man. None of it is true. But you people sit there day after day, night after night, all ages, colors, creeds. We're all you know. You're beginning to believe the illusions we're spinning here. You're beginning to think that the tube is reality and that your own lives are unreal. You do whatever the tube tells you. You dress like the tube. You eat like the tube. You raise your children like the tube. You even think like the tube. This is mass madness -- you maniacs! In God's name you people are the real thing, WE are the illusion.

"So turn off your television sets. Turn them off now. Turn them off right now. Turn them off and leave them off. Turn them off right in the middle of the sentence I am speaking to you now. Turn them off!!"
-- Howard Beale, as played by Peter Finch, during his live studio broadcast of the Network News Hour

Network is a movie that raises the question: If television isn't reality, then in what kind of reality do the people who create television exist? Originally released in 1976, Network blasts the falseness of television; corporate control of a TV network; and how television can succeed in destroying the lives of those involved with trying to produce high ratings.

The main plot of Network follows TV news anchorman Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch) who works for a fictional fourth-rated TV network called UBS (Universal Broadcasting System). Beale's ratings on the UBS nightly news hour have slipped and he is about to get fired. In an act of desperation, Beale announces in the middle of his news monologue that he will "blow his brains out" on his program next week -- so tune in! The UBS management team starts to damage control and begins to try and balance Beale's metal breakdown versus the soaring ratings.

Beale's friend and news director Max Schumacher (William Holden) sees the slow decay of the network due to a drive toward ratings at the sacrifice of integrity for money. Schumacher fights with UBS management, mainly network executive Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), to keep Beale off the air and get him psychological help. Beale, however, is kept on the air and begins a nightly tirade of madness and profanity. During one broadcast, Beale starts screaming "bullshit" in the middle of the program that is going out live across the country. He yells the, now classic, line: "I want you to get up out of your chair, stick your head out the window and yell, I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!"

UBS management, recently taken over by a multinational conglomerate called CCA, now sees Beale's news show as the cornerstone of their network programming. Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), the director of programming, takes the news show and makes it a weekly spectacle and even creates the "Mao Tse Tung Hour" after it which highlights the activities of counter-revolutionary communists with authentic footage of violent acts. Beale's show gets great ratings and Hackett fires Schumacher and takes control of the network.

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Network News Hour with Sybil the Soothsayer -- Jim Levitt and his Almost Truth Department -- Ms. Madahare and her Skeletons In The Closet -- tonight, another segment of Vox Populi. And starring, the mad prophet of the airwaves: Howard Beale!

To Beale's credit, however, he is not really a lunatic. Beale, for all his insane ravings, actually begins to see the truth behind television. He sees the madness of television and the falseness of what it has become and what he has become. Though Beale urges his viewers to "think for themselves" and "turn off the tube" he is caught up in whirlwind and sees himself as "an angry prophet denouncing the hypocrisies of our times."

Eventually, the novelty of Beale's show begins to wear off and the ratings start to fall. Rather than being the top rated show, Beale begins to slip and actions are taken. As the ratings fall, so do the lives and fortunes of those involved with creating the program. In the end, television destroys them all.

Paddy Chayefsky's brilliant screenplay coupled with Lumet's solid direction and excellent performances by the cast make Network a simply outstanding movie. Though Network had many moments of humor, it is a serious movie that makes a profound statement about the nature of TV broadcasting. Television is about ratings and advertising revenue. The audience is considered so far as the answer to the question: How many people are watching? The quality of the programs, the accuracy of the programs, and the integrity of the programs are never considered. Do people watch? Special considerations such as originality, creativity, compassion, and fairness are not aspects of TV programming. Do people watch?

When Howard Beale's show was a hit, everything was going well for the characters. However, when the ratings dipped, the producers and management of the network have to take drastic measures to "stop the free fall" and secure advertising revenue. To management, Beale is not a human, he is an asset, he is fiction. Money and corporate interests rule the TV show content. Money and corporate controls rule the network.

Chayefsky's characters are not shallow or weak. Character development in Network is excellent. Management executive Hackett is wise in the ways of corporate maneuvering. Clearly, the movie is making a statement that those who produce TV shows are not mindless, but instead are intelligent and calculating. Television is produced to make money with whatever the audience happens to watch. Nobody cares about the needs of the audience. Television audiences are reduced to ratings points and market shares. Hackett wants to use whatever resources are at his disposal to climb up the corporate ladder.

Network does not simply show television production as a sit-com or soap opera (like the horrendous movie Broadcast News did in 1987). Instead, it puts flawed characters into impossible situations. The characters in Network work themselves in and out of trouble through interactions with others; and in the end all is not forgiven and not everything ends happily.

One subplot in the movie is the affair between Schumacher and Christensen which involves an old-school news director with a young program director looking for her big break. Their affair ends with some great dialogue:

Christensen: "Don't leave me."

Schumacher: "It's too late Diana. There's nothing left in you I can live with. You're one of Howard's humanoids. If I stay with you I'll be destroyed. Like Howard Beale was destroyed . . . Like everything that you and the institution of television touch, is destroyed.

"You're television incarnate Diana. Indifferent to suffering. Insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War. Murder. Death. All the same to you as bottles of beer. And the daily business of life is a corrupt comedy. You even shatter the sensations of time and space into split seconds and instant replays. You're madness Diana. And everything you touch dies with you . . . but not me. Not as long as I can feel pleasure, and pain and love.

"And it's a happy ending. Wayward husband comes to his senses. Returns to his wife with whom he's established a long and sustaining love. Heartless young woman, left alone in her arctic desolation. Music up with a swell. Final commercial. And here are a few scenes from next week's show . . ."


© 2003 review by Ron Kaufman

Network sound bites (in MP3 format)

Howard Beale and Max Schumacher get drunk (1 MB)

Diana Christensen pitches the Howard Beale Show idea to Frank Hackett (1.7 MB)

"I'm As Mad As Hell!" (316 k)

Howard Beale's sermon (1.7 MB)

Network is listed in the American Film Institute's "100 Greatest American Movies of the 20th Century," it is ranked #66. The movie received 10 Academy Award nominations and won 4 Oscars for best screenplay (Chayefsky), best actress (Dunaway), best actor (Finch) and best supporting actress (Straight).

Director: Sidney Lumet
Screenplay: Paddy Chayefsky
Director of Photography: Owen Roizman
Music: Elliot Lawrence

William Holden (Max Schumacher)
Faye Dunaway (Diana Christensen)
Peter Finch (Howard Beale)
Robert Duvall (Frank Hackett)
Wesley Addy (Nelson Chaney)
Ned Beatty (Arthur Jensen)
William Prince (Edward Ruddy)
Darryl Hickman (Bill Henrron)
John Carpenter (George Basch)
Beatrice Straight (Louise Schumacher)

Theatrical release in 1976 by MGM.
DVD widescreen release in 2000 by Time Warner.

Network is rated R (adult language).