If you’ve ever seen the 1976 movie Network, you’ll know the unforgettable scene in which TV news anchor Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch) has a mental breakdown while on-air.Ignoring the teleprompter, he breaks into one of the greatest soliloquies of American cinema, a wandering but coherent rant about the banks, crime and unemployment.
Finally, he urges his viewers to throw open their windows and yell, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more!”
Today, Network feels as fresh and vital as it did 36 years ago, and not just because Finch, Faye Dunaway and Beatrice Straight won Oscars for acting in it.
It’s because the movie predicts everything about modern media in the 21st Century—from reality TV and YouTube to Glenn Beck and the tabloid news format. And it did so 20 years before the internet even existed.
It’s spooky how much the movie got right about the direction of the news business specifically, and the media generally.
Note that the script, written during the mid-1970s recession, could describe 2012 with hardly any changes:
I don't have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It's a depression. Everybody's out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel's worth; banks are going bust; shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter; punks are running wild in the street, and there's nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there's no end to it.
We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat. And we sit watching our TVs while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and 60-three violent crimes, as if that's the way it's supposed to be!
We all know things are bad -- worse than bad -- they're crazy.
It's like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don't go out any more. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we're living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, 'Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials, and I won't say anything. Just leave us alone.'
Well, I'm not going to leave you alone.
I want you to get mad!
I don't want you to protest. I don't want you to riot. I don't want you to write to your Congressman, because I wouldn't know what to tell you to write. I don't know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street.
All I know is that first, you've got to get mad.
You've gotta say, 'I'm a human being, goddammit! My life has value!'
So, I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out and yell, 'I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!!
If Beale's speech feels familiar, that's because it is: Glenn Beck borrowed his entire paranoid persona from Beale.
In Network, UBS commissions a spin-off show, 'The Mao-Tse Tung Hour,' which documents the exploits of a terrorist group, the 'Ecumenical Liberation Army.' UBS' reality-based programming supplants its scripted primetime lineup, and ratings success follows.
In real life, reality TV did not become a dominant audience-getter until the first season of Survivor was broadcast in 2000.
YouTube became huge by giving people a place to publish low-quality video they shot themselves. Often, those videos show people committing crimes or doing incredibly dangerous things--something no TV network would ever commission.
In Network, Faye Dunaway's character commissions a show in which terrorists film themselves robbing a bank--exactly the kind of self-shot footage that was unusual in the 1970s (when few people could afford a portable video camera) but happens every day on YouTube now.
Back in the day, TV networks and their news divisions were often standalone, independent companies. In Network, CCA, the conglomerate that owns UBS, is about to be acquired by a larger Saudi Arabian company because CCA's debt is so huge it cannot survive without the deal. Beale demands the deal be stopped.
In the 2000s barely a year goes by without a mega-merger.
Spoiler alert: In order to ensure the CCA merger goes through, Beale's bosses have him assassinated live, on-air, during his own show.
In 2008, Sky Television in the U.K. aired 'Right to Die?,' which showed an assisted suicide.
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