Anyone who’s interested in modern network news should watch the movie Network from 1976. It’s almost forty years old now and except for the modern technology, the new players and the new stories they’d be hard pressed to see any differences between the two eras. Shows in both address what people will watch and assume that hard news is boring and that most people get the news in which they are interested from their smart phones (today, anyway). They work long days, come home and are only interested in what some celebrity did at some party, what they wore or some other celebrity gossip.
Network is about a struggling TV network called United Broadcasting System (UBS) and its struggling news division, UBS News. Their lead news anchor, Howard Beale (the great Peter Finch) has a nervous breakdown live on his nightly newscast, perhaps because of his awful ratings (the movie does not make that clear). He starts swearing on national network TV back when cable TV was just getting going and not yet a major medium.
The news executives and other network executives conclude that Beale has to be taken off the air completely but give him one last newscast to say goodbye to his audience (the two people remaining outside of UBS) because of his long distinguished career in journalism and with UBS News. Beale takes this opportunity to continue his rant and tell his audience that the whole world is bullshit and that people should be mad as hell and not stand for it anymore.
Well, to get Network you have to first understand the times. This movie takes place in, I believe 1975, even though it came out in 1976. America was going through a rough recession combined with high unemployment, high inflation, high interest rates, high costs of living and everything else that makes life expensive. Beale, here, is presenting this to his audience and saying that they shouldn’t stand for it anymore.
Fay Dunaway’s character is a program executive at UBS who sees a big opening for herself and a way to profit from Beale and the malaise that the country is suffering. She gives him his own new show, a nightly rant about everything that sucks in the world. The show is a hit, at least at first, This is one of the first instances of network news becoming a money-making business first and public service second.
Network foretold CNN, MSNBC, FNC and all of the so-called reality TV networks 30-35 years before their time. I’m not aware of a movie before or since that was so prescient. With its great writing, cast, and humor it is one of the best movies of all time and one of my personal favorites.