Hollywood Flashback: In 1976, 'Network' Predicted News as Entertainment

MGM/Photofest
Darryl Hickman and Dunaway in 1976’s 'Network.'

Writer Paddy Chayefsky’s Peter Finch and Faye Dunaway-starrer warned 40 years ago that TV news, motivated by the need for higher ratings to satisfy corporate owners, was beginning to masquerade as entertainment.

This story first appeared in the April 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

In a world where the GOP's presidential frontrunner is Donald Trump, the television news environment satirized in Network seems tame by comparison.

But writer Paddy Chayefsky's comedy-drama struck a major chord in 1976. It warned that TV news, motivated by the need for higher ratings to satisfy corporate owners, was beginning to masquerade as entertainment. Today that statement might engender a "Like, duh" shrug — but 40 years ago, network news divisions operated with a certain classy autonomy.

Chayefsky used a Walter Cronkite-style anchor gone berserk named Howard Beale (Peter Finch) to make his point. The newsman knew he was getting fired for declining ratings and announces that in a week he'll commit on-air suicide.

When he's given the chance to say a gracious on-air farewell, Beale tells viewers life is "bullshit" and implores them to open their windows and shout, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" This does wonders for the ratings. It also plays into the hands of a programming director (Faye Dunaway, then 35) whose Kardashian-like sense of taste combines with the ethics of Saddam Hussein.

Beale soon has his own vent-your-feelings talk show, but when ratings begin to decline on that, Dunaway's character arranges to have him assassinated on the air. The real world around the film also was unusual. Finch, 60, died from a heart attack in the lobby of The Beverly Hills Hotel the morning after appearing on The Tonight Show, where he'd led the audience in the "I'm as mad as hell" chant.

Two months later, his Network performance won him a posthumous Oscar. The film itself was nominated for best picture along with All the President's Men, Taxi Driver, Bound for Glory and Rocky (which won) in a year considered exceptionally strong for film quality.

"They gave it to the feel-good movie," says Network producer Howard Gottfried. "All the other movies made you sit back and think."

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