THERE WOULD BE no problems if Network simply presented itself as good solid fun. The acting is uniformly fine. The plot is exciting enough, with interesting twists. The direction is fast-paced (although the narrative is a little talky).
But Network, a creation of Paddy Chayefsky (writer) and Howard Gottfried (producer), won't settle for that. In the production notes for the film, Gottfried says, "our film deals with the destruction of the individual and traditional ideals through a system dedicated to conformity, standardization, and the least common denominator." Network has intellectual pretensions. Yet it can't get away with them.
Network starts out with an honest premise. A distinguished anchorman from UBS, the fourth network, is about to be axed because of poor ratings. Instead of existing politely he makes a scene on the air, replete with words rarely heard on television. The network respectables are outraged. But the network's younger technocrats, who don't care about the integrity of the news, point out that the anchorman's antics have caused the ratings to zoom.
They demand that he be returned to the airwaves as an angry prophet. Their gambit works; the show's a hit. In domino fashion the old dogs cave in, get fired or die, and the popular-taste programmers take over. They provide scatological offerings around the clock and give UBS its first year in the black.
THIS PLOTLINE, plus the angry prophet's orations, are supposed to serve as an indictment of television--for screening bullshit that panders to our basest instincts instead of intelligent news programming that could educate us. But Chayevsky is the one who is really pandering. He has devised a phony portrait of television's weaknesses and hopes to peddle that message to every Happy-Talk-hating, Tom Snyder-loathing, sit-com-sickened, Dick Cavett-loving liberal who has ever been disgusted with TV's performance. And Chayevsky's dishonesty catches up with him, rendering this film into a harmless vision that doesn't really convince or cajole.
Several levels of dishonesty become apparent in Network. The film hits its deceitful best in its with which to identify. We have an Edward R. Murrow character in whore-number-one, Max Shumacher (William Holden), head of the news division. But unlike Murrow (who was virtuous both on and off the screen) Shumacher leaves his wife of 25 years and shacks up with whore-number-two, vice president for programming Diana Christenson (Faye Dunaway).
Christenson comes off as a woman with no scruples, someone who spends the whole film creating ridiculous yet effective shows hoping to produce a "50 share" (a sample of the technocratic lingo that she uses incessantly and incomprehensibly throughout the film). She goes on to team up with whore-number-three, senior vice president Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), the technocrat who battles to the top, conducting a search and destroy mission against integrity on the way.
And then there is the biggest whore of them all, anchorman Howard Beale (Peter Finch), who is supposed to be UBS's Cronkite, the difference being that he is instantly willing to cash in 30 years of journalistic integrity to transform the evening news into the Nuremberg rally of the airwaves.
These creations embody a slick form of dishonesty. In Network there is no hope, and consequently no philosophy--only scum and a vision that simply is false. Like it or not, Chayevsky, people who come out good-on-balance do exist and can triumph, even in networks. This film overlooks the Murrows, the Schorrs, even the Gabe Pressmans--and this oversight makes Network unlifelike and superficial. That the world is full of sellouts, whores and pimps does not mean that everyone is a sellout, whore or pimp.
This is not to say that the networks are not predominantly corrupt places. It is to say, however, that there are ways of making this corruption clear without sacrificing principles. Satire would have allowed a director to point out major flaws effectively, albeit at the expense of the film's few moments of pathos. But Network is not a funny movie. Satire is used only once, in the scene when corporate magnate Arthur Benson, played superbly by Ned Beatty, gives Howard Beale the multinational creed. (Not coincidentally, it is the most effective scene in the film.)
Yet the most deceitful element in this film has nothing to do with its characters. This dishonesty involves Network's explanation of why the news often proves innocuous and politically uncritical, why it becomes sensational ("straight tabloid," in Christenson's vocabulary) in its human interest material and photo news stories.
The film's thesis attributes this combination to the ratings. True, much of television programming--including some of the news's content--is dictated by the ratings. But the chief reasons for the news's timidity and sporadic honesty have much more to do with the government, which licenses them, than the ratings. UBS executive Frank Hackett's casual rejoinder to questions about controversial news programming--"The FCC can't do anything except rap our knuckles"--is dangerously misleading. The heads of the three networks fear the government's ability to impinge on their programming far more than they care about their news programs' audience.
David Halberstam '55, in his excellent series of articles in Atlantic last year, "CBS: The Power and the Profits," exposes this anxiety in a revealing passage:
In 1967, Lyndon B. Johnson, momentarily annoyed at the network and wanting to keep it off balance, spotted in a speech written by Joe Califano a reference to the "public airwaves." Johnson pencilled in "the public's airwaves," a change in emphasis so sensitive that the next day every major broadcast lobbyist had nervously called Califano to see whether this heralded some dangerous new populist policy at the White House.
Halberstam writes that things got worse as Nixon carried out a more systematic campaign to intimidate television network heads. Instant analyses disappeared and comment was flattened. This reaction was predictable, given the balance sheet. Television's profits are huge; few corporate heads are willing to jeopardize those profits for the sake of hard-hitting commentary and in-depth reporting.
PERHAPS ARGUMENTS such as these seem picky and harsh for this lone foray into an unexplored and uncriticized area. But the film itself chooses to act as the networks' social conscience. If it wants to take on these pretensions, it is important that Network adhere to the code it criticizes newscaster for shirking: to get the facts straight and to tell the truth.