— George W. S. Trow, In The Context of No Context
“THE BASIC JOKE,” Paddy Chayefsky wrote in his notes for the script that would become the film Network, “is that the networks are so powerful they can make true what isn’t true and never even existed — The networks are so powerful they make the ravings of [a] maniac … true.” The name of that “maniac” during the script’s earliest stages was “Kronkheit,” a perversion of the connotations that Walter Cronkite’s name lent to television news between 1937 and 1981: reassurance, composure, and objectivity. As Dave Itzkoff relays in his brisk, engaging, and comprehensive Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and The Fateful Vision of The Angriest Man in Movies (2014), Chayefsky subsequently noticed the Beales of Grey Gardens and nabbed their surname for his film’s maniacal protagonist. The Beales possessed stately airs amid abundant squalor — a mother and daughter sniping constantly at each other and yet enchanted by the idea of appearing on screen. In a similar vein, Network’s Howard Beale was conceived as the consummate TV man in stately decay. Before Peter Finch was cast as Beale, the part was offered to Jimmy Stewart, George C. Scott, and even Walter Cronkite himself, five or so years before he retired from the actual airwaves at CBS.
Since Network’s release in 1976, something has happened to TV news. In his 1988 memoir, Prime Times, Bad Times, Ed Joyce reflected on the traditional role of nightly broadcasts during his tenure as president of CBS News:
The benefits which have come from an open reliable flow of information during a time of crisis are almost incalculable. For a large and diverse nation based on a concept of consensus, it’s been a remarkable service, all the more remarkable when you realize that this service has had to coexist on that small plate of glass in your home with car chases and sitcoms, with football games and soap operas. It moves from remarkable to amazing when you realize that the ultimate responsibility for the network news divisions has rested in the hands of the same businessmen who have shaped the rest of American television as it exists today.
As these proud words suggest, ratings once were of lesser importance within the value system of network news. Or rather, what networks would do to achieve ratings was circumscribed by certain boundaries of good taste: the “remarkable service” the networks provided was — and, to a decidedly lesser degree, continues to be — mandated by law in exchange for permission to make private use of publically owned airwaves during every other hour of the day. The news divisions at each of the three major networks were to be free from the bridle of the profit motive. In this way, they would lend “value and prestige” to the otherwise pell-mell business of television. Yet even as early as the mid-1970s, many local affiliates surrendered all pretense to being indifferent to ratings in favor of the sort of tabloid stories that today we might call, in their internet form, clickbait.
In researching the script for Network, Chayefsky noted this change at the local level. He was given unparalleled access to the three major networks in New York City, allowed to shadow various executives over the course of their clockwork days. He even chatted with the venerable anchors about their jobs. It is almost impossible to imagine a screenwriter being granted comparable access today to write anything other than anodyne, and it is certainly possible that we have the networks’ collective furor over Network, well-documented by Itzkoff, to thank for that change. Cronkite, whose daughter had a small but spirited part in the film, bestowed on the completed work his half-hearted approval, but few other persons of stature in news production of that era followed suit.
Based on his findings and suspicions about the future of news media, Chayefsky conceived of a film that would be entertaining as social commentary and a harbinger of possible abuses by those deciding from the control booth what — and whom — to put before the American public.
From his earliest days as a 1950s TV writer, Chayefsky specialized in the cri de coeur — the impassioned harangue, as delivered by the common man. Itzkoff’s Mad as Hell recounts a disenchanted Manhattan printer who declares in one of Chayefsky’s early teleplays: “We’ve gone mad, boy, with this mad chase for comfort, and it’s sure we’re losing the very juice of living.” In an unproduced script written in the late 1960s, a Chayefsky-penned TV producer asks:
What the hell has happened to us Americans anyway? We seem to have lost whatever identity we ever had. We used to be pioneers, homesteaders, farmers, craftsmen, shopkeepers, robber barons, bohemians, Whigs, Tories, rail-splitters, immigrants. Now, we’re two hundred million whiter-than-white, softer-than-soft, deodorized, standardized, simonized, plastic and programmed things, totally indistinguishable from each other […]
This sense of lost identity, and of television having something crucial to do with that loss, appears as a major thematic thread in Network. Notoriously fastidious about how his scripts were delivered by the actors, Chayefsky insisted that he be present on set during the filming at Sidney Lumet’s direction. Indeed, Chayefsky’s contract offered him final say about each line’s delivery. Finch was allowed one of only a few derivations from the written script: Australian and British-reared, he added an “as” to what now redounds as the film’s most famous line: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” During a montage of viewers appearing at their windows in one of the film’s (many) climatic sequences, each calls out, “I’m mad as hell …” — exactly what Chayefsky’s script, and not Finch’s Beale, implored them to say.
While Beale’s jeremiad-spouting anchor marks the cadence around which the entire narrative turns (“This is mass madness, you maniacs. In God’s name, you people are the real thing, we are the illusion!”), it is William Holden’s “crusty-but-benign” producer Max Schumacher and Faye Dunaway’s mercurial upstart Diana Christensen with whom the film’s most resonant dialectic finds voice. Holden’s worn appearance — he was 57 when the film was made, yet looks 75 — stands with world-weary integrity against Dunaway’s live-wire energy. An anonymous actor went so far as to call her in a 1974 interview “an enchanted panther in a poem,” and in Network she lives up to that description.
Schumacher stands for the values once upheld by the film’s fictional UBS network: a level deal with the public, what Ed Joyce called the news broadcasters’ “remarkable service.” Christensen, meanwhile, pines for the network presentation of artificial crises whenever possible and for the ratings that those crises are sure to bring. So what if a lot of made-up crises lead to a very large real one — that’s television! She creates a primetime docudrama, The Mao Tse-Tung Hour, wherein homegrown terrorists film their own acts of terrorism. It’s proto-reality television, and like Christensen’s rebranded version of the nightly news, sure to be a hit.
At the time of Network’s release, reality TV was barely a twinkle in the eye of the most far-seeing producers, and the notion of an opinion-laden national news broadcaster, save for a 60 Minutes segment or two, was thought to be absurd if not downright offensive. Nowadays, cut-rate reality TV and terrorism fears are ever-present: if the two haven’t been quite so literally tied together by any producer, it has not been for a lack of paranoid fringe conjecture that they could be. The abuse of the public trust in the pursuit of ratings has created reservoirs of diametrically opposed audiences that the rise of social media may only further augment. We’re “siloed,” as Bill Clinton recently said on The Daily Show — itself a Beale-like endeavor, albeit lacking Beale’s self-seriousness.
During his film’s publicity tour Chayefsky admonished: “The news should not — must not — become part of the entertainment scheduling. To make a gag out of the news is disreputable and extremely destructive.” At the same time, he was also saying: “I don’t attack; I just tell the truth. Television will do anything for a rating. Anything!” In live-wire fashion, Chayefsky went on the one hand from writing to Walter Cronkite following the film’s release, “I never meant this film to be an attack on television as an institution in itself, but only as a metaphor for the rest of the times,” to avowing in private that “the thing about television right now is that it is an indestructible and terrifying giant that is stronger than the government.” Are these statements coherent? Do they square? Do they need to square?
Squareness, after all, is an old-guard virtue — one upheld by the film’s would-be square, Max Schumacher. And Schumacher eventually loses out to Diana Christensen at UBS, even if it is a loss that leaves them both bereft. Schumacher may condemn Christensen as “television incarnate,” but she is also the excitement in Schumacher’s life, the pearl after which he has dived. And if their pairing is played in the film as cutting satire, it is a satire that cuts both ways in the long view. Schumacher wants to wash his hands of the whole affair — leaving his lover in the same spirit as a viewer who resolves never to watch a certain TV station again. But, really, we have to ask, what remains for him? Worrying over whether the script would work without a coherent message, Chayefsky noted, “I’m not for anything or anyone.”
As the decades have passed, Network presents less and less as satire. “If people accepted the film as reality, it will be dreadful because it is an unfair exaggerated portrayal,” said Barbara Walters, then a nightly co-anchor, in 1976. Referring to Beale’s harangues a few years ago, Glenn Beck opined, “I think that’s the way people feel. That’s the way I feel.” For his part, in a book conspicuously low on editorializing, Itzkoff remarks toward his conclusion, “Information is instantaneous and perilously subjective in an era when every man or woman can potentially be his or her own broadcaster.”
The dominant, homogenous voice of midcentury reassurance has burst into however many spirited parts. With social networking, it has splintered even further: we are all, potentially, our own broadcasters, even as the bedrock news institutions — the Max Schumachers, in effect — persevere at risk of hollowing out.
“The work of television is to establish false contexts and to chronicle the unraveling of existing contexts.” So wrote George W. S. Trow in his very own Beale-like critical crack-up of 1980, In the Context of No Context. “Television will re-form around the idea that television itself is a context to which television will grant access […] CBS and You. It makes clear. Nothing else exists. Just CBS and you. No city. No state.” We get the sense that nothing television can do would have been good enough for Trow, at least in the early 1980s, as he tossed his darts again and again at the bull’s eye of critical awareness.
Writing from another generation down the line, the TV-saturated David Foster Wallace observed in his own cri de coeur:
The real authority on a world we now view as constructed and not depicted becomes the medium that constructs our world-view […] To the extent that TV can refer exclusively to itself and debunk conventional standards as hollow it is invulnerable to critics’ charges that what’s on is shallow or crass or bad, since any such judgments appeal to conventional, extra-televisual standards about depth, taste, quality.
Who are we, after all, to judge the substance of what media conglomerates present to us?
Only the rightful owners of the airwaves.
In some literary way, I can imagine sharing lunch with Ed Joyce at whatever New York City eatery is now lousy with cachet. A forthright lunch conversation, in a sense, is the feeling bestowed by his memoir. “I was at the center of the most turbulent era in the history of one of America’s important institutions,” he says.
“Well, Ed,” I respond, “what do you make of what’s happening today?” Then, standing up from our table, I step onto my chair.
“Have you gone mad?” asks Ed Joyce.
Speaking theatrically so that all the TV people in the restaurant can hear me, I say: “We know things are mad. They’re worse than mad. They’re corrupt. It’s like everything everywhere is corrupt for ratings or clicks, so we sit in front of our laptops. We sit with our bodies in front of our laptops and slowly our view of the world is getting more and more ideologically extreme, and all we say is, ‘Please, at least leave us alone with our laptops. Let me have my newsfeed and my likes and my headphone-jack-free iPhone, and I will only post on my friends’ Instagrams.’ Well, I’m not going to leave you alone. I want you to get sensible! I don’t want you to say the Pledge of Allegiance, I don’t want you to give all your money to charity — I don’t want you to stop paying attention to the fact that some programs have higher ratings than others. I don’t know how to solve the environment or stark income inequality or Vladimir Putin or unprovoked police violence against black lives. All I know is that first you’ve got to get sensible. You’ve got to say, ‘We are all human beings, goddammit! Nobody’s perfect!’ Open your email now and find the address for the president at your network. I want you to type out: I’m as sensible as hell and I expect you to use the airwaves responsibly. Things have got to change! Enough of this madness!”
J. T. Price’s fiction has appeared in The New England Review, Joyland, The Brooklyn Rail, Electric Literature, Opium Magazine, and elsewhere.