Network (1976) is director Sidney Lumet's brilliant, pitch-black criticism of the hollow, lurid wasteland of television journalism where entertainment value and short-term ratings were more crucial than quality. Paddy Chayefsky's black, prophetic, satirical commentary/criticism of corporate evil (in the tabloid-tainted television industry) is an insightful indictment of the rabid desire for ratings by the media - eerily prescient even for the present age. Indignation toward the network executives by an unbalanced news-anchorman (Finch) ("I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not gonna take this anymore") is manipulated by ruthless VP programming boss (Dunaway) for further ratings. One of the film's posters correctly proclaimed: "Television will never be the same."
The film had a total of ten Academy Award nominations with four wins. To the film's credit, five cast members were nominated for Oscars (and three won) - Best Actor (posthumously awarded to Peter Finch - Finch became the first and only post-humous winner of an acting Oscar in Academy history), Best Actress (Faye Dunaway), and Best Supporting Actress (Beatrice Straight)). Only A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) had as many Academy Awards for acting. The fourth win was for Chayefsky's Best Screenplay. [This was Chayefsky's third Oscar following awards for Marty (1955) and The Hospital (1971).] The other six nominations were for Best Actor (William Holden), Best Cinematography (Owen Roizman), Best Director (Lumet's third directorial nomination without a win), Best Film Editing, Best Supporting Actor (Ned Beatty), and Best Picture.The Story
The film opens on a wall of four color television monitors, each displaying the evening network news on the four networks: Howard K. Smith (ABC-TV), John Chancellor (NBC-TV), Walter Cronkite (CBS-TV), and a fictional fourth-place network, the Union Broadcasting System (UBS-TV), with silver-haired, veteran news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch). The narrator (Lee Richardson) introduces the film's story as the camera moves in to isolate Howard Beale on the display. The aging, used-up television reporter of UBS-TV, with floundering ratings, has been told after many years of service that he will be terminated in two weeks:
This story is about Howard Beale who was the network news anchorman on UBS-TV. In his time, Howard Beale had been a mandarin of television, the grand old man of news, with a HUT rating of 16 and a 28 audience share. In 1969, however, his fortunes began to decline. He fell to a 22 share. The following year, his wife died, and he was left a childless widower with an 8 rating and a 12 share. He became morose and isolated, began to drink heavily, and on September 22, 1975, he was fired, effective in two weeks. The news was broken to him by Max Schumacher who was president of the News Division at UBS. The two old friends got properly pissed -
In the middle of a drinking marathon on a nighttime street in Manhattan, Beale's boss and old friend and admirer Max Schumacher (William Holden), the head of the network news, speak together about their maverick days in the early 50s in the radio news business when television was just beginning. At a bar in the early hours of the next morning, the unstable Beale threatens to kill himself right in the middle of his news broadcast: "I'm going to kill myself...I'm going to blow my brains out right on the air, right in the middle of the seven o'clock news." Max flippantly remarks that it would boost ratings, not thinking seriously about the threat and its consequences:
Max: You'd get a hell of a rating, I'll guarantee you that. A fifty share easy...We could make a series out of it. Suicide of the Week. Oh hell, why limit ourselves? Execution of the Week.
Howard: Terrorist of the Week.
Max: I love it! Suicides, assassinations, mad bombers, Mafia hitmen, automobile smash-ups. The Death Hour! A great Sunday night show for the whole family. We'll wipe f--kin' Disney right off the air.
Brief shots compare the buildings of "Television Row," where the four television networks have skyscraper glass/marble buildings reaching to the sky. Seemingly routine scenes of the bustling newsroom and a run-down meeting for the evening's schedule on UBS-TV are shown interspersed underneath the film's credits. Howard is made-up in a small network-news make-up room before he takes a sip of booze and proceeds to the studio for the seven o'clock news. During the beginning of the broadcast, the network's Washington correspondent makes a follow-up report on the attempted assassination of President Ford in San Francisco on the previous day. When Beale begins the evening news show, he tells his viewers, off from his script, that he has been fired and will commit suicide during his final broadcast a week later.
Ladies and gentlemen, I would like at this moment to announce that I will be retiring from this program in two weeks' time because of poor ratings. Since this show was the only thing I had going for me in my life, I have decided to kill myself. I'm gonna blow my brains out right on this program a week from today. Tune in next Tuesday. That should give the public relations people a week to promote the show. We ought to get a hell of a rating out of that - a fifty share, easy.
Production assistants and the director are bewildered and can scarcely believe what they have heard. Before the next segment, a floor manager and associate producer struggle to pull Howard away from his reporting desk. As he holds onto the desk, the screen projects the confusing bedlam and chaos, and then abruptly cuts to a standby screen: "VIDEO DIFFICULTIES are TEMPORARY - Please do not adjust your set."
Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), the Executive Senior VP of the network, who has been summoned from a dinner party (and is still in his tuxedo) races through the UBS offices to deal with the embarrassing crisis for the network hierarchy - the network's downstairs lobby is swarming with every TV station and wire service in the city, and the station's phones are clogged with viewers complaining about the foul language. In an executive office, Hackett confronts Beale on a couch: "You're off the air as of now." The network executives view how Beale's performance was the opening story on other television shows. Max Schumacher explains how UBS will handle the crisis: "Holloway's gonna make a brief statement at the end of the show that Howard's been under great personal stress, et cetera." Hackett explodes with anger at Schumacher: "I've had it up to here with your cruddy division and its annual thirty-three million dollar deficit."
The next day in the Projection Room, Schumacher meets casually-dressed Bill Herron (Darryl Hickman) (from the West Coast's Special Programs Department) and the new VP of Programming Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), where together they watch a screening of a film. The documentary depicts a black woman, Laureen Hobbs (Marlene Warfield) in a panel discussion from the David Susskind Show with other urban-guerrilla types:
(on screen) The Communist Party believes that the most pressing political necessity today is the consolidation of the revolutionary, radical, and democratic movements into a United Front.
A second clip is "something really sensational. The Flagstaff Independent Bank of Arizona was ripped off last week by a terrorist group called the Ecumenical Liberation Army, and they themselves actually took movies of the rip-off while they were ripping it off." Diana is thrilled by the raw footage of the bank robbery committed by the revolutionary underground: "This is terrific stuff." During the screening, Max takes a conference call with executive producer Harry Hunter (Jordan Charnay) and Howard - who begs for "another shot" so that he can end his career by making amends with a little dignity:
I'd just like to come on, make some brief farewell statement and then turn the show over to Jack Snowden. I have eleven years at this network, Max. I have some standing in the industry. I just don't want to go out like a clown. It'll be simple, dignified.
The veteran news anchor is given another chance. Later in Diana's office with various program developers - George Bosch (John Carpenter), Tommy Pellegrino (Michael Lipton) and Barbara Schlesinger, the head of the Story Department, the amoral, eager, go-getting and ambitious VP of programming excitedly proposes making a series out of real bank robbery footage (home movies negotiated from a revolutionary group of their own bank robberies - similar to Patty Hearst bank heists of the era) to bring more exploitative, tabloid programming to the financially-losing division:
Diana: I think we can get a hell of a movie of the week out of it, maybe even a series...Look, we've got a bunch of hobgoblin radicals called the Ecumenical Liberation Army who go around taking home movies of themselves robbing banks. Maybe they'll take movies of themselves kidnapping heiresses, hijacking 747's, bombing bridges, assassinating ambassadors. We'd open each week's segment with their authentic footage, hire a couple of writers to write some story behind that footage, and we've got outselves a series...
Bosch: A series about a bunch of, uh, bank-robbing guerrillas?
Schlesinger: What are we gonna call it - the Mao Tse-Tung Hour?
Diana: Why not? They've got 'Strike Force', 'Task Force', 'SWAT'. Why not Che Guevara and his own little 'Mod Squad'. Look, I sent you all a concept analysis report yesterday. Did any of you read it? Well, in a nutshell, it said, 'The American people are turning sullen. They've been clobbered on all sides by Vietnam, Watergate, the inflation, the depression. They've turned off, shot up, and they've f--ked themselves limp and nothing helps.' So this concept analysis report concludes, 'The American people want somebody to articulate their rage for them.' I've been telling you people since I took this job six months ago that I want angry shows. I don't want conventional programming on this network. I want counter-culture. I want anti-establishment. (She shuts her door) I don't want to play butch boss with you people. But when I took over this department, it had the worst programming record in television history. This network hasn't one show in the top 20. This network is an industry joke. And we better start putting together one winner for next September. I want a show developed, based on the activities of a terrorist group. 'Joseph Stalin and his Merry Band of Bolsheviks.' I want ideas from you people. That is what you're paid for. And, by the way, the next time I send an audience research report around, you'd all better read it or I'll sack the f--king lot of you, is that clear?
At the television network's stockholders meeting in a banquet room within the New York Hilton, Frank Hackett makes an annual report to the seated audience, and submits a plan "for the coordination of the main profit centers, and with the specific intention of making each division more responsive to management." He singles out the division which produces "the lowest rate of return" - the News Division - "with its 98 million dollar budget and its average annual deficit of 32 million. I know that historically, news divisions are expected to lose money. But to our minds, this philosophy is a wanton fiscal affront to be resolutely resisted. The new plan calls for local news to be transferred to Owned Stations Divisions, News-Radio would be transferred to the USB Radio Division, and in effect, the News Division would be reduced from an independent division to a department accountable to network." After the meeting, Max Schumacher is enraged and feels "publicly humiliated" - he complains to Edward Ruddy (William Prince), Chairman of the Board.
When Howard Beale reappears on the air for the evening news, he uses shocking four letter words to tell his viewing audience that he had intended to commit suicide because he "ran out of bulls--t" - Max who stands in the back of the control room during the mad, irresponsible tirade lets the program proceed without censorship, arguing "If this is how he wants to go out, this is how he goes out":
Good evening. Today is Wednesday, September the twenty-fourth, and this is my last broadcast. Yesterday, I announced on this program that I was going to commit public suicide, admittedly, an act of madness. Well, I'll tell you what happened. I just ran out of bulls--t...Bulls--t is all the reasons we give for living, and if we can't think up any reasons of our own, we always have the God bulls--t...We don't know why the hell we're going through all this pointless pain, humiliation and decay, so there better be someone somewhere who does know. That's the God bulls--t. If you don't like the God bulls--t, how about the man bulls--t? Man is a noble creature that can order his own world. Who needs God? Well, if there's anybody out there that can look around this demented slaughterhouse of a world we live in and tell me that man is a noble creature, believe me, that man is full of bulls--t...I don't have any kids, and I was married for thirty-three years of shrill, shrieking fraud. So I don't have any bulls--t left. I just ran out of it, you see?
In the offices of top management later that evening, Edward Ruddy berates Max for his responsibility for the evening's newcast - a "colossally stupid prank...It was unconscionable. There doesn't seem to be anything more to say." Fighting for his own survival, Schumacher is concerned about a mega-conglomerate named C. C. and A. and its encroachment over the UBS Systems and the network. The corporate take-over is controlled by "CCA's hatchet man" Frank Hackett, symbolic of the complete collapse of news standards that he grew up with since the days of Edward R. Murrow. But Ruddy cannot tolerate Max's complicity "in a shocking and disgraceful episode. Your position is no longer tenable regardless of how management is restructured. I will expect your resignation at ten o'clock tomorrow morning..." Max is summarily fired from the News Division.
Howard Beale, meanwhile, has become the darling of the media after his triumphant return, and he speaks behind a crushing tide of cameras following his last broadcast: "Every day, five days a week, for fifteen years, I've been sitting behind that desk, the dispassionate pundit, reporting with seemly detachment the daily parade of lunacies that constitute the news and just once I wanted to say what I really felt." His interview is intently watched by Diana from her apartment as she dispassionately sits naked with a young stud named Arthur Zangwill (Mitchell Jason).
In her office the next morning as she reads "yesterday's overnights," Diana Christensen hears outlines submitted by Universal for an hour-long series, a series set in a Eastern law school titled The New Lawyers, a lady cop show titled The Amazon Squad, and a third show about an investigative reporter. Interrupting her assistant, she notes the rise in ratings after reading the morning's Daily News newspaper, and decides to exploit the Howard Beale situation even further:
The Arabs have decided to jack up the price of oil another twenty per cent, the CIA has been caught opening Senator Humphrey's mail, there's a civil war in Angola, another one in Beirut, New York City's still facing default, they've finally caught up with Patricia Hearst and - the whole front page of the Daily News is Howard Beale.
The paper's headline reads: "BEALE FIRED," accompanied by a 3/4 page blowup of the news reporter. In Hackett's office following the night that "Howard Beale went on the air and yelled bulls--t for two minutes," Diana proposes to "put that lunatic back on the air yelling bulls--t." She leans forward toward Hackett: "I think we've lucked into something." A ruthless, calculating opportunist, she recognizes the potential of increased ratings and financial success if Howard's sound-offs are properly developed as info-tainment to 'articulate the popular rage':
Diana: We just increased our audience by twenty or thirty million people in one night. Now, you're not gonna get something like this dumped in your lap for the rest of your days, and you can't just piss it away. Howard Beale got up there last night and said what every American feels, that he's tired of all the bulls--t. He's articulating the popular rage. I want that show, Frank. I can turn that show into the biggest smash on television.
Hackett: What do you mean, you want that show? It's a news show. It's not your department.
Diana: I see Howard Beale as a latter-day prophet, a magnificent messianic figure, inveighing against the hypocrisies of our times, a strip Savonarola, Monday through Friday. I tell you, Frank, that could just go through the roof. And I'm talking about a six dollar cost per thousand show! I'm talking about a hundred, a hundred thirty thousand dollar minutes! Do you want to figure out the revenues of a strip show that sells for a hundred thousand bucks a minute? One show like that could pull this whole network right out of the hole! Now, Frank, it's being handed to us on a plate. Let's not blow it!