Film & TV

What Network Got Wrong

Faye Dunaway and Peter Finch in Network (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc./IMDb)
The television industry will do anything for money — but where does that money come from?

The finest stemwinder in Paddy Chayefsky’s Network isn’t the famous speech, or the other famous speech, but the one no one ever talks about. It’s the demand a revolutionary Communist turned neophyte television producer makes while she’s reading her lengthy contract. For anyone who has ever seen a television contract — a genre that tends to resemble Bertrand Russell’s Principia Mathematica, only with more formulas — the scene is a spiffy inside joke, but even if you’re unfamiliar with the biz, the scene is still hilarious:

Don’t f*** with my distribution costs! I’m making a lousy 215 per segment. I’m already deficiting 25 grand a week with Metro. I’m paying William Morris 10 percent off the top and I’m giving this turkey ten thou per segment and five more to this fruitcake! And Helen, don’t start no sh** with me about a piece again. I’m paying Metro 20 percent for all foreign and Canadian distribution and that’s after recoupment! The Communist party’s not gonna see a nickel out of this goddamn show till after we go into syndication!

How delicious to imagine a radical subversive taking a break from eternal battle with the bourgeoisie to take up words like “deficiting.” Chayefsky was forever alert to absurdity, as he proved in his even more on-point, and maybe even more ferocious, satire The Hospital.

Released in 1976 and wryly directed by Sidney Lumet, Network (streaming on the TCM app through May 30) remains one of the most frequently cited films of cinema’s greatest era. In the years after its release, the term “prophetic” became attached to it like “epic” to Lawrence of Arabia or “overrated” to 2001: A Space Odyssey. But Chayefsky was more wrong than right; Television policed itself better than he envisioned because he didn’t understand who really calls the shots when it comes to programming.

Faye Dunaway’s Diana Christensen, the movie’s evil-genius programmer, who blurs and then obliterates the line between news and entertainment, turns the money-losing news division into a profit center by adding sensationalist elements. She brings in a soothsayer and a weekly documentary show told from the point of view of terrorists. Most notoriously, she encourages Walter Cronkite to become Father Coughlin.

Prodded by Diana, who either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that he’s insane, the sad-sack nightly-news reader, Howard Beale (Peter Finch), begins to uncork his disgust with the world in angry nightly rants while restyling himself as “the mad prophet of the airwaves.” Diana correctly guesses that turning news into tabloid trash will pump up viewership at her fourth-place network, but what Chayefsky seems not to grasp is that network television doesn’t make its money from viewership. It makes its money from advertising. Advertisers want to be associated with quality media. Diana’s signature idea, The Mao Tse-Tung Hour, which opens each week with film of an authentic act of terrorism (modeled on the famous 1974 footage of Patty Hearst robbing a bank together with her pals from the Symbionese Liberation Army), is dumb. Advertisers would want no part of such a show, so it’s a worthless idea, at least for network television. Late in the movie, she learns to her dismay that paying terrorists who then use the money to commit felonies might make her criminally liable. I think Legal would have figured this out much earlier in the development process. Like, on Day 1.

Chayefsky, like many others in the 1960s and 1970s, was grouchy about the increasingly democratic nature of television, remembering the Fifties, when networks used to air plays by the likes of Horton Foote, Gore Vidal, and, um, Paddy Chayefsky. But programming to the lowest common denominator is not what networks do. The big money is in reassuring non-political products (such as sitcoms or NFL football or game shows) that attract the deepest-pocketed blue-chip advertisers. Inflammatory or downscale programming can attract eyeballs, but it will cost you the best advertisers. No matter how low Diana Christensen may want to go, it’s the staid, controversy-shy taste of the advertisers that guides network television.

Some credit Chayefsky for foreseeing the rise of what came to be known as tabloid television — sensationalist news programs packed with lurid crimes that were produced not for network prime-time but for syndication. Shows like A Current Affair and Inside Edition caused much consternation about tawdriness infecting the airwaves for a decade or so, but they started to fade to irrelevance in the late 1990s. When the New York Times began treating the O. J. Simpson murder story as actual news rather than leaving it to the tabloids, as it might have done a decade earlier, the dam broke and legacy news outlets began taking seamy crime stories seriously. Then cable news channels threw themselves into stories about kidnapped moms and missing interns. When A Current Affair no longer had such stories to itself, it became superfluous. But today’s TV news coverage is still underwritten by advertisers, who keep it from getting too tawdry.

What the Diana Christensens of television did do — very much aided by the real-life equivalents of William Holden’s principled Max Schumacher, the Don Hewitt–ish éminence grise — was steer network news in a direction Chayefsky didn’t foresee at all: dignified, classy sensationalism. Entertainment labeled “investigative reporting” by 60 Minutes and later epigones such as Dateline NBC, 20/20, and 48 Hours (which debuted as 48 Hours on Crack Street) became huge profit centers for network news. Although they drew high ratings, they existed not to inspire rubes to shout out their windows but to draw the affluent, educated audiences that advertisers crave. These shows weren’t anything like Chayefsky’s “Sybil the Soothsayer.” They won awards. They were respectable. And they taught us that our apples would give us cancer, that our Audis would suddenly accelerate for no reason, that our beef was vile and our pickup trucks would explode. Peddling upscale hysteria while calling it “news” was a very different and much more sophisticated strategy than Chayefsky’s vision of networks turning to Maoist bank robbers to make a buck.

Still, are not the heirs of Howard Beale all around us? Sort of. Howard Beale, with his long, impassioned rants about what’s wrong with America, did indeed anticipate the fiery populist monologists of talk radio, then Fox News Channel. That aspect of Chayefsky’s script is what resounds more loudly than anything else he wrote in Network. But Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham don’t go as far as Beale, an actual lunatic who would talk at length on the air about what the voices in his head were telling him to do. The one television personality who proved to be a real-life approximation of the mad prophet of the airwaves was the deeply weird Glenn Beck, who did a bonkers performance-art take on the news for two and a half years on Fox News Channel (and happily acknowledged his debt to Beale: “I am that guy.”).

And what happened to Beck? His gonzo riffs, backed up by crazy dream-webs of conspiratorial machination he diagrammed for us on his famous chalkboard, carried him to boffo ratings through the first two and a half years of the Obama administration, but his act was far too weird for the advertisers. When Fox could no longer sell many commercials on Beck’s hour, it showed him the door. But getting rid of a real-life Beale turned out to be a lot simpler than Chayefsky predicted; Fox simply didn’t renew his contract. There was no need to hire anyone to assassinate Glenn Beck on live television when he was so willing to keep shooting himself in the foot.

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