• Peter Finch and William Holden in 'Network' (SBS Movies)Source: SBS Movies
A look at the classic media satire that remains as urgent and relevant now as it did in 1976.
Dan Barrett

12 Mar 2020 - 10:59 AM  UPDATED 28 Jan 2021 - 10:45 AM

TV is mad as hell and we’re taking it more and more

It begins with the breakdown of a man on television.

Longtime news anchorman Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch) announces to the audience:

“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 is the only thing I had going for me in my life, I've decided to kill myself.

I'm going to blow my brains out right on this program a week from today. So tune in next Tuesday. That should give the public relations people a week to promote the show. You ought to get a hell of a rating out of that.”

The outlandish announcement is met with indifference from everyone producing the news program. Years of complacency had set in and nobody was paying the newsman any attention. It was only a few moments later when they realised what he had just announced that they started freaking out and pulled him off the air.

Now, for the first time in years, people are paying attention to the show. Howard is permitted back on the air where he makes the iconic proclamation:

“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

Written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet, the 1976 film Network was a scathing satire of television - the ruthlessness and ethical flexibility of TV executives catering to an audience that has become numb to the world around them.

A prescient satire in the mid-'70s, Network is maybe even more pertinent now. Sure, the evening broadcast TV news bulletin isn’t quite as dominant as it once was, but the themes of Network are more relevant than ever. It seems that with 24/7 access to news through TV, websites, and social media we’ve developed an even thicker callus to the problems of our times.

Network showed that it would take a truth-telling TV news presenter to get attention in 1976. What we have seen since then is far wilder than anything Chayefsky could have ever written.

The TV star infused with Tiger Blood

Almost 10 years later it seems hard to believe, but in 2011 the biggest TV show in the world at the time was arguably the sitcom Two and a Half Men. No, really.

The show was largely forgettable TV with a fairly standard sitcom premise, tired faux-raunchy jokes, and a phoned-in performance by series star Charlie Sheen every week. Nobody really talks about the show anymore. But the memory we all share from it was Sheen’s very public flame-out.

In a public statement, Sheen lashed out at the show and producer Chuck Lorre, he ran online livestreams where he promoted Tiger Blood (was it an energy drink? Who can remember?), and regularly declared himself to be #Winning. The world may have been watching Two and a Half Men, but we only started paying attention to it when Sheen went off script and upset the narrative on how a star is supposed to behave.

Creatures of the spotlight

He’s the attention-seeking reality TV star who became US President. Thoroughly ridiculous and difficult to take seriously, Donald Trump’s entire schtick seems directly lifted from the Howard Beale playbook. Both the fictional Beale and the all-too-real Trump understand the ability of television to legitimise a person for merely appearing on screen, the need to cut through the noise to command an audience's attention, and the ability of the medium of TV to amplify whatever they have to say - regardless of how ridiculous it might be.

The horror of live shootings

Network focused on a traditional broadcaster going rogue on an otherwise buttoned-down, establishment TV broadcast. Video technologies have improved dramatically since then, with a lot more live crosses and also live online streaming. While this can lead to wonderful moments like the world embracing a mother having fun growling in a Chewbacca mask while alone in a car, it can also lead to incredibly dark moments that have shocked us out of our complacency. The murder of TV presenter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward on live TV by a gunman was a horrific moment. And then there was the live stream of shootings in Auckland.

The destruction of a father’s authority

Thankfully, not every surprising, unplanned event on live TV speaks to the darkness of man’s soul. Sometimes it offers a genuine human moment that could never be intentionally replicated.

In March 2017, political science professional Robert Kelly was routinely providing expert analysis on issues related to South Korea in a live interview conducted from his home via an Internet livestream on the BBC. A serious man detailing gravely serious issues. It only took one unlocked door and a joyfully rambunctious toddler to unravel the segment.

Her daddy was being boring as all heck and she wasn’t going to take it anymore.

Follow the author here: @TheDanBarrett



Watch 'Network'

Sunday 7 February, 12:20am on SBS VICELAND (NOTE: No catch-up at SBS On Demand)

USA, 1976
Genre: Drama
Language: English
Director: Sidney Lumet
Starring: Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall, Wesley Addy, Ned Beatty

Peter Finch and William Holden in 'Network'

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