A couple of nights ago I got a few answers while streaming the classic film “Network,” from the righteously indignant pen of Paddy Chayefsky. It gave me chills, too, realizing that the film celebrates its 40th anniversary in November, when we will know if it’s Hillary or The Donald who will be sitting in the Oval Office come January.
When I hit play on “Network” for the first time in more than 20 years, I expected it to come off as shrill and dated. Yes, I remember its Walter Cronkite-esque news anchor Howard Beale’s on-camera breakdown at the insanity that surrounded him, and his cry to viewers to shout as loud as they can: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore!” And I did remember how Beale’s cry and ratings rise had been so prescient of the success decades later of Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and so many others.
Still, I forgot how the mad drive for ratings and profits that take place at the movie’s fictional network, UBS, made anything, including terror and murder brought to you live, seem perfectly acceptable programming. Beale, played by Peter Finch in an Oscar-winning performance, declares on the air that he will “blow [his] brains out” the following week because it will give the network’s PR department plenty of time to promote it.
Faye Dunaway, who plays network entertainment chief Diana Christensen, argues to keep Beale at the anchor desk and build a show around him, and she holds sway over her bottom-line-focused UBS overlords like a force of nature. It’s impossible to watch her corporate boss, the dastardly Frank Hackett (played to perfection by Robert Duvall), and not think of Roger Ailes, and how the Fox News supremo came around to The Donald in what is currently playing like some near-fiction feel-good story line — or a wacky sitcom plot.
“Beale is articulating the public rage,” declares Christensen. (Legendary New Yorker critic Pauline Kael once described Dunaway’s character as a “dirty Mary Tyler Moore.” Kael didn’t mean that as a compliment.)
Beyond the reconfigured newscast that includes a nightly segment with a psychic, other ways Dunaway’s Christensen attempts to improve the failing fortunes of UBS include building a series around a terrorist cell, the Ecumenical Liberation Army, overseen by one Ahmed Khan, that will intersperse actual footage of the group's robberies and gunplay with reenactments of other such acts. “I want angry shows,” Christensen demands of her development team. “I want counter culture. I want anti-establishment.”
In almost three decades of a so-called reality TV boom, including everything from “The Real World” to cable new shoutfests to “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” that’s pretty much what we’ve got going on.
Media consolidation, which “Network” predicts, and the digital age (which the film does not forecast) have given us a cacophonous TV Everywhere ecosystem ripe for an authoritarian maestro reality TV star who may be sitting his ugly, tsunami-coiffed self in the White House before February Sweeps. And that digital age has also pushed news departments to stress quantity (of clicks and views) over quality (of actual reporting), and scoops over anything that will last from one day to the next. This current age makes the battles of William Paley vs. Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly seem as quaint as a rotary phone.
A pretty clear consensus exists that without the “Apprentice,” Twitter and hundreds of hours of free airtime on virtually every network, and his ability to drive ratings and dead presidents, the presumptive GOP nominee would be making deals and fending off bankruptcies, remaining a frequent punchline for late-night hosts.
If the brilliant Chayefsky, who won a deserved Oscar for his “Network” screenplay, were still alive, I don’t think he would disagree. And The Donald, I’ll bet you even money, has seen “Network” more than once and learned its lessons well. He’s the one who’s tapped into an electorate that’s mad as hell. And oh, the ratings!