If you have been to a Philadelphia 76ers game you have probably seen a short clip from the movie Network, directed by Sidney Lumet and written by Paddy Chayefsky.
Winner of 4 Academy awards, the deeply satirical film has been voted as one of the 10 greatest screenplays in the history of film. Although released in 1976, the film has only become more relevant over time as 24 hour news television and now social media have essentially turned satire into prophecy.
News as a loss leader
Historically until the advent of cable TV, the major networks had delivered news as part of the agreement with the FCC to devote programming to the “public good”. This was in service of the notion that the best protection of democracy was an informed population. While separating profit motive from the equation of journalistic integrity, TV news was mostly dry and informational.
Peter Finch plays Howard Beale, an institution in TV News who had fallen to fourth in the ratings despite having decades of experience delivering measured and reliable information every night. Beale had recently lost his wife, and as the Network decides to let him go with two weeks notice he reacts with despair. When he initially goes on TV to announce his departure, he tells the audience that he will commit suicide on his final night, live, on air.
Instead of taking him off air immediately, some in Corporate management see the ratings of the evening and decide to give him a chance to come back one last night to make a final statement and assure his audience that he will not kill himself. When he arrives however, drunk and soaked from the rain, he gives the iconic rant.
Could never happen right? well….Actually it has happened.
The launch of the 24 hour cable news network (CNN) in 1980 changed everything when it came to news and information for the public good. The Network has always attempted to straddle the middle of the American political spectrum but the simplicity of advertiser pressures and profit incentives has affected the types of stories that are featured. CNN was struggling to survive until the Gulf War of 1991 when it was able to broadcast a war live for the first time in history.
Fox News and MSNBC launched in 1996 and quickly took on the opposite ends of the spectrum right and left. That summer the murder, chase and trial focused on OJ Simpson captured the imagination of the country and irrevocably changed news from a source of information, into a source of sensation and entertainment. Fox Fox initially struggled until finding an audience among older white conservatives who were concerned by the “family values” of the Clinton administration.
Ambition of Youth
Faye Dunaway, in many respects represents the youthful vigor and ambition of a TV executive. Sensing opportunity, Dunaway’s character, Diana Christensen makes a pitch to corporate ownership that sensationalism on both sides of the spectrum was the path toward profit.
She argues that news can make a profit, the key is to get all of the most extreme viewpoints and give them a platform. She pitches to keep Beale on, turn his rants into a new form of programming. Supplement Beale with other shows of even more extreme viewpoints up to and including terrorists, revolutionaries and communists. Compelling content is all that matters.
Sentimental Aging Men
A side plot is that of former network executive Max Schumacher, played by William Holden. Holden is noble, flawed and sentimental. His character is presented as an old school Mad Men style mysoginist but with a soft heart. The Corporate executives view him as a dinosaur of naivety and oust him in favor of Christensen. The affair that begins between the two only serves to keep the two on screen together and show old versus new. Ultimately, He sums up the stark difference in the penultimate scene.
The economics of outrage
This tube is the Gospel, the ultimate revelation. This tube can make, and break presidents, popes and prime ministers... and woe is us, if it ever falls into the hands of the wrong people.Howard Beale – Network 1976
The hand that feeds you
Beale’s rants are driving profits and building ratings. But when he exposes a corporate takeover by Saudi investment, the true power brings him to heel. Arthur Jensen, played by Ned Beatty brings the power of those holding the strings of the “free market” in a remarkable speech.
The sensational opener
Ultimately, Network was intended as Satire and a wakeup call for a world driving toward spectacle. In the 43yrs since its release, however, it looks more like a strategic document than harbinger. You can almost see Bill O’Reilly, Glen Beck, Sean Hannity, Alex Jones or Rachel Maddow, running the Network playbook.
The News cycle is dominated by politics as a sport. Fox, CNN and MSNBC using the same strategy with different filters. They all look to capture attention at any price while consistently reducing the educational value or reliability of information provided. Sensation and outrage are the product and the purveyors are differentiated as much as Coke and Pepsi.
But as social media and citizen journalism has proliferated, TV has become just the tip of the spear. Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and even Google are all motivated by profit more than informing and improving society. Algorithms dictate what search results you get, prioritizing the monetize-able content. Twitter will feed your timeline to agree with your opinions. They reinforce any crazy you might be feeling that day. Facebook will sell your data to a foreign government, sending you content to gently nudge you down the rabbit hole.
But other than that! Stay tuned!