Plato The Republic And
Directed by Sidney Lumet
Screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky
Filmed and released 1976
With Peter Finch, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, and others
“Network” begins with a shot of four television monitors that show the evening news of the four major networks: ABC, CBS, NBC, and (the fictional) UBS. The camera moves in on Howard Beale (Peter Finch), the silver-haired, dignified anchor of the UBS evening news. A narrator informs us that Howard Beale used to be “a mandarin of television, the grand old man of news, with a HUT rating of 16 and a 28 audience share,” but that in recent years his ratings had been declining, and that he has finally been given notice, effective in two weeks from now.
The bad news is broken to Beale personally by his boss and old friend Max Schumacher (William Holden). The two friends get rip-roaring drunk and reminisce about old times. When they quiet down deep in the night, Howard Beale suddenly says: “I’m going to kill myself…. I’m going to blow my brains out right on the air, right in the middle of the seven o’clock news.” Max, choosing to take the announcement as a joke, initiates the following exchange:
Max: You’d get a hell of a rating, I’ll guarantee you that. A fifty share easy. We could make a series out of it: Suicide of the Week. Oh hell, why limit ourselves? Execution of the Week!
Howard: Terrorist of the Week.
Max: I love it! Suicides, assassinations, mad bombers, Mafia hit men, automobile smash-ups. The Death Hour! A great Sunday night show for the whole family. We’ll wipe fuckin’ Disney right off the air.
As it turns out, Howard Beale may not have been joking. Next day during the evening news he publicly announces that he will commit suicide:
Ladies and gentlemen, I would like at this moment to announce that I will be retiring from this program in two weeks’ time because of poor ratings. Since this show was the only thing I had going for me in my life, I have decided to kill myself. I’m gonna blow my brains out right on this program a week from today. Tune in next Tuesday. That should give the public relations people a week to promote the show. We ought to get a hell of a rating out of that–a fifty share, easy.
The journalists and production crew at UBS are aghast. Beale is yanked off the news desk by security guards. The mayhem appears live on television until a “Temporary Disturbance” sign tells the viewers: “Do not adjust your set.” The headquarters of UBS is swarming with excited reporters from newspapers and other stations. The major networks are interrupting their regular programming to cover this late-braking news. An infuriated Frank Hackett (Robert Duval), a Vice President of UBS, tells Beale: “You’re off the air as of right now.”
Howard Beale is not the only one who has been slipping in the ratings: the whole News Division of UBS has been losing money for years, and the executives of the network are taking steps to reverse that trend. Diana Christensen (Fay Dunaway) is put in charge of Programming, and she is bent on replacing traditional TV fare with innovative and exciting shows. She operates on the principle that sensationalism and histrionics will bring large numbers of viewers to their television sets and to UBS. She has gotten in touch with various political fringe groups whom she wants to perform on prime time television. She is particularly excited about footage that some “Ecumenical Liberation Army” has taken of a bank robbery that they themselves committed as part of their revolutionary campaigns. This is how Diana Christensen introduces to her colleagues the idea of using such spectacular actions regularly to entertain television audiences:
Diana: I think we can get a hell of a movie of the week out of it, maybe even a series… Look, we’ve got a bunch of hobgoblin radicals called the Ecumenical Liberation Army who go around taking home movies of themselves robbing banks. Maybe they’ll take movies of themselves kidnapping heiresses, hijacking 747s, bombing bridges, assassinating ambassadors. We’ d open each week’s segment with that authentic footage, hire a couple of writers to write some story behind that footage, and we’ ve got ourselves a series…
Bosch: A series about a bunch of bank-robbing guerrillas?
Schlesinger: What’re we going to call it–the Mao Tse Tung Hour?
Diana: Why not? They’ve got Strike Force, Task Force, and SWAT. Why not Che Guevara and his own little mod squad?
Meanwhile Howard Beale is given a chance to effect a more dignified exit from his years of service at UBS. He promises Schumacher to say a few quiet words, and then hand over the show to his successor. What he actually delivers, however, turns out to be another bombshell:
Good evening. Today is Wednesday, September the twenty-fourth, and this is my last broadcast. Yesterday I announced on this program that I was going to commit public suicide, admittedly an act of madness. Well, I’ll tell you what happened. I just ran out of bullshit. Bullshit is all the reasons we give for living, and if we can’t think up any reasons of our own, we always have the God bullshit… If you don’t like the God bullshit, how about the man bullshit? Man is a noble creature that can order his own world. Who needs God? Well, if there’s anybody out there that can look around this demented slaughterhouse of a world we live in and tell me that man is a noble creature, believe me, that man is full of bullshit…
The production staff at the studio gets ready to cut Beale off once more, but Schumacher decides to let him finish: “If that’s how he wants to go out, that’s the way he will go out.” It turns out by the end of the day, however, that Beale’s tirade is a big success with the public. The ratings are phenomenal, and Diana Christensen points out to her superiors and staff that average viewers are far more interested in Beale’s emotional outburst than in any objective reports about important world events. In spite of a world in turmoil–raging civil wars, illegal activities of the CIA, dramatically rising oil prices, crippling debts, and major economic problems on the horizon–the lead story in all the media is Beale and his plain-speaking rant. Beale expresses how people actually feel about the world and the everyday media babble. People are disturbed by the state of the nation and the world, and they are angry because nobody seems to be able to do anything about it. Beale’s “bullshit” speech effectively gives vent to people’s pent-up frustration and rage.
The flipped-out anchor fits right into Diana Christensen’s concept of innovative programming. She proposes to Hackett that a ranting Beale become a fixture of a regular news show. That may change the customary newscast into some sort of circus, to be sure, but it would also attract millions of new viewers, and it would get the network out of its financial doldrums. Diana urges Hackett not to miss this unique opportunity:
We just increased our audience by twenty or thirty million people in one single night. Howard Beale got up there last night and said what every American feels, that he’s tired of all the bullshit. … I see Howard Beale as a latter-day prophet, a magnificent messianic figure, inveighing against the hypocrisies of our times–a strip Savonarola, Monday through Friday. I tell you, Frank, that could just go through the roof.
Against the resistance of lawyers and old-fashioned news professionals, UBS goes ahead with the new Howard Beale Show. Beale is packaged flamboyantly as the “angry prophet denouncing the hypocrisy of our time.” Diana, who wants the cooperation of Max Schumacher, defends her strategy in a conversation with him: “TV is show biz, Max, and even the News has to have a little showmanship.” When Schumacher insists on a strict separation of serious news and entertainment, Diana reminds him that his own regular professional newscast is by no means as substantial and serious as he pretends it to be:
I watched your six o’clock news today–it’s straight tabloid. You had a minute and a half on that lady riding a bike naked in Central Park. On the other hand, you had less than a minute of hard national and international news. It was all s…x, scandal, brutal crimes, sports, children with incurable diseases and lost puppies. So I don’t think I’ll listen to any protestations of high standards of journalism. You’re right down in the street soliciting audiences like the rest of us. All I’m saying is, if you’re going to hustle, at least do it right.
Although Schumacher remains opposed to Diana’s tabloid style and show biz ideas, he is strongly attracted to her. He is married and much older than the frantically energetic Vice President of Programming, but Diana has always had a little crush on him, and so he allows himself to be seduced. “I have the feeling that I am being made,” he remarks as they move toward becoming intimate. “You are,” she cheerfully replies.
At first the new Howard Beale Show does not take off as desired. The former anchor is still too much of a traditional and critical journalist to play the role of the mad prophet very well. Things are vastly improved for the network, however, when Beale suffers a nervous breakdown. He is beginning to hear voices while lying awake in the night. In his state of near-insanity his rants become more inflammatory and theatrical. At the end of each of his performances he falls into a dramatic swoon. The viewers are ecstatic. They are mesmerized by his flamboyant performance, and he is able to build up a huge following.
Beale’s friend Schumacher wants him to resign and seek professional help. He accuses the network of exploiting a sick man. But Schumacher is fired, and Beale gets solidly established as “the mad prophet of the airwaves.” He launches a series of noteworthy speeches. His first major stunt is a call on viewers to express their pent-up rage in a tangible fashion. After reminding them of the declining economy, threatening unemployment, increasing violence, environmental hazards, and other disturbing symptoms of decay he tells his television viewers: “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 mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore! ‘”
Beale’s call is wildly successful. Diana, in touch by telephone with affiliate stations, hears that people all over the country are yelling out of their windows “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Floods of calls and telegrams are coming in–all enthusiastically supportive of Beale’s crazy stunt. The ratings are skyrocketing; Diana’s programming strategy is obviously working. “Son-of-a-bitch,” she jubilates, “we’ve struck the Mother Lode!” During the following weeks her Mao Tse Tung Hour is taking off as well. The political activists that appear on the show are turning into entertainment stars. Revolutionary rhetoric and spectacular anti-establishment actions are drawing large audiences and making good money for the corporation.
UBS is owned by the Communication Corporation of America. In a CCA conference room Hackett proudly delivers his annual report to senior executives and the board, gloating about “an increase in projected initial programming revenues in the amount of twenty-one million dollars due to the phenomenal success of the Howard Beale Show.” Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty), the President and Chairman of the Board of CCA, compliments the beaming Hackett on his good work.
Because of his phenomenal success, Beale is allowed to say whatever comes to his mind. For now the executives do not care what goes on the air as long as ratings and revenue remain high. Even when Beale takes on the institution of television itself, nobody interferes. Thus Beale can tell the nation over the airwaves to turn off their television sets if they ever want to make real sense of their situation and their lives:
This company is now in the hands of CCA, the Communication Corporation of America. And when the twelfth largest company in the world controls the most awesome, god-damned propaganda force in the whole godless world, who knows what shit will be peddled for truth on this network. So, you listen to me! Television is not the truth. Television is a goddamned amusement park. Television is a circus. So turn off your television sets. Turn them off and leave them off!
Just the opposite happens, of course: new viewers tune in by the millions. It does not really matter what Beale says, people love his passionate theatrical act. The anti-television rant is ideal television fare; the network executives wax ecstatic. At the annual UBS Affiliates Convention the President of UBS proudly introduces Diana Christensen, “the beautiful and brainy woman behind the Howard Beale Show.” To the thunderous applause of the invited guests. Diana announces: “We have the number one show in television. And at next year’s affiliates’ meeting, I’ll be standing here telling you we’ve got the top five. Last year, we were the number four network. Next year, we’ll be number one.”
But while the celebration is in full swing, Howard Beale is already delivering his next speech, an inflammatory tirade about oil-rich Arabs buying up the network. Negotiations between the CCA and Arab investors are indeed under way, and Beale feels a patriotic duty to subvert any such deal. As important a means of communication as television belongs to the American people, it must not end up in the hands of dubious foreigners. Foreign control of American TV, he maintains, is a threat to American democracy. Beale urges his viewers to protest the corporate maneuver to the government by sending a flood of phone calls and telegrams to the White House: “I want you to get up from your chairs, go to the phone, get in your cars, drive into the Western Union offices in town. I want you to send a telegram to the White House. I want the CCA deal stopped now!”
Hackett, who is called to a television monitor, is increasingly alarmed by what he hears. With this interference into high-level corporate dealings Beale clearly has crossed the line of what he is permitted to do: he is meddling with the basic prerogatives of corporate capitalism. Together with Hackett Beale is summoned to appear before the mighty Jensen. The head of CCA takes Beale to a darkened conference room and thunders at the flabbergasted prophet:
You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I won’t have it, is that clear? You get up on your little twenty-one inch screen and howl about America and democracy. There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM, and ITT, and AT and T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today!
Beale is shaken to the core by this rebuke of his political convictions. “I have seen the face of God,” he stammers, staring terrified at the towering CEO. “You just might be right, Mr. Beale,” Jensen replies. And beginning this same evening “the mad prophet” goes on the air “to preach the corporate cosmology of Arthur Jensen.” Gone is Beale’s critical attitude toward the country’s television and couch potato culture, and gone is his vision of a democratic society in which active and informed citizens determine their own lives. Gone also is his old enthusiasm—the power to perform as a spellbinding prophet. Instead a dispirited Beale tells his viewers:
Last night, I got up here and asked you people to stand up and fight for your heritage, and you did, and it was beautiful. Six million telegrams were received at the White House. The Arab takeover of CCA has been stopped. The people spoke, the people won. It was a radiant eruption of democracy. But I think that was it, fellas. That sort of thing is not likely to happen again. Because in the bottom of all our terrified souls, we know that democracy is a dying giant, a sick, dying, decaying political concept, writhing in its final pain.
Beale’s ratings plummet as a result of this pessimistic message and dispirited performance; the viewers miss the customary show of optimism and good feeling. In a panic Diana exclaims: “Another couple of weeks of this and the sponsors will be bailing out.” Drastic changes are called for at once. The trouble is that Arthur Jensen likes Beale’s new line, and he does not want the changed prophet fired. Diana Christensen and Frank Hackett are in a bind, for Beale’s depressing performance is beginning to undermine their present high standing in the corporate world.
Diana’s and Schumacher’s affair is turning sour as well. Max is troubled by feelings of guilt and vulnerability, and he misses real understanding and warmth in Diana. The consummate director of television programming cannot but conceive of their affair as some sort of up-beat show, and she insists on scripting it according to stereotypes of TV. She has no use for the melancholy depth and moral seriousness that Schumacher suddenly brings to their relationship. “This whole thing started out as a comedy, remember? Now it’s turning into a seedy little drama: Middle-aged man leaves wife and family for young heartless woman, goes to pot. … I don’t like it.” After an unpleasant exchange of recriminations the two lovers decide to go their separate ways.
The dilemma of the Howard Beale Show comes to a head. Jensen still forbids Beale’s firing, but the show’s catastrophic ratings demand the prophet’s immediate removal. In a conspiratorial meeting Hackett proposes that Beale be killed, and Diana suggests that the killing be done by a couple of assassins of the Ecumenical Liberation Army–right on stage and in front of rolling cameras: “It’ll make a hell of a kick-off show for the season.”
The plot is executed as planned; Beale is gunned down in front of his studio audience. While the prophet, covered with blood, lies dead on the studio floor, a newscaster announces to a national audience what has happened. As the film fades out over a cacophony of media babble, a narrator’s voice remarks: “This was the story of Howard Beale, the first known instance of a man who was killed because he had lousy ratings.”
Television and Democracy
“Network” is a sort of comedy, to be sure, but the point it makes is decidedly serious. While the film uses exaggeration as a means of clarification, its characterization of our television culture is fundamentally realistic. “This is not a satire,” Norman Lear pointedly wrote about “Network,” “it’s a documentary.” And Gore Vidal once remarked: “I’ve heard every line from that film in real life.”
The story of “Network” takes place in 1976, the bicentennial of the American Revolution. The date is no accident: “Network” is a reflection on the reality and future of American democracy. Democracy, according to the film, is under attack, and the threat does not come from somewhere outside the United States, but from the American way of life itself—a way crucially defined by TV. At a time when the world situation becomes increasingly difficult and complex, a functioning democracy is in urgent need of an alert and well-informed public. Democracy by its very nature needs citizens who are willing to learn, think, and take meaningful action on their own behalf. Television, however, undermines both civic literacy and active participation, according to “Network.” It turns its viewers into passive consumers of non-stop entertainment, and it transforms what should be an enlightened public into a helpless and confused mass that falls far short of understanding and controlling the forces that shape their lives and foreseeable future.
Howard Beale’s main mission as the “mad prophet of the airwaves” is, as he sees it, to combat the debilitating tendencies of the “tube,” and to inspire people to actively take charge of their lives. Paddy Chayefsky puts powerful and insightful speeches in his mouth. Beale is a sort of madman, to be sure, but there is an ancient tradition according to which mad individuals are considered mouth pieces of gods or higher powers, and their messages revelations of deeper wisdom. Chayefsky explicitly alludes to this tradition, and he reminds us that there have been other prophets and visionary leaders who were anything but ordinary stable minds. Diana remarks that Beale is “as mad as Moses,” for example, and she submits: “It’s just possible that [Beale] isn’t insane, that he is, in fact, imbued with some special spirit.” Beale can, indeed, function as an inspiring prophet because he lives on the brink. He is not weighed down by trivial concerns anymore, and he is not held back by such things as etiquette and social taboos. He is free to cut through the usual “bullshit” and to address the truly important tasks of the time.
The first aspect of television that Beale attacks is the apathy and passivity that it seems to encourage and cultivate among its habitual viewers. As television viewers people are emphatically passive to begin with. Their bodies do not move, and unlike readers or debaters they do not exert their minds when taking in information and stimuli. It is because of this effortlessness with which people can gratify their communication needs that they tend to become addicts of TV. They turn into the proverbial couch potatoes whose spirits get blunted and whose emotions dulled by an endless stream of mostly trivial images and commercial exhortations; their thorough passivity becomes a way of life. Instead of being active citizens they turn into passive consumers. They are vaguely aware that the world is in trouble, and that important things ought to be done, but they do not really know what to do, and they see no way to be meaningfully active. They escape into ever more brainless entertainment, and they remain locked in feelings of fuming frustration. Their near-catatonic inertia can only be broken, according to Beale, by making them passionately feel again, and by getting them to vigorously express their buried frustration and smoldering rage. In Beale’s words:
We know things are bad–worse than bad. They’re crazy. It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don’t go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are 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 gonna leave you alone. I want you to get mad!
Beale’s next attack concerns the too dominant position of television as means of information and communication. The “tube” is dangerous not only because of its role in nurturing passivity and inertia, but also because of its near-monopolistic position as the shaper of people’s consciousness. Addressing his mesmerized audience, Beale explains why he both loathes and uses the institution of TV to say what he must get across:
Because you and sixty-two million other Americans are watching me right now, that’s why! Because less than three percent of you people read books. Because less than fifteen percent of you read newspapers. Because the only truth you know is what you get over this tube! There is an entire generation right now that never knew anything that didn’t come out of this tube. This tube is the gospel. This tube is the ultimate revelation. This tube can make or break Presidents, Popes, Prime Ministers. This tube is the most awesome, goddamned force in the whole godless world…
The effectiveness of television could be imagined to be less dangerous than it is if it would actually fulfill the function of providing people with the necessary and reliable knowledge that they need for making informed and responsible decisions as citizens and individuals. Television does not fulfill this function, however—certainly not adequately. Opposing the widespread assumption that television is a reliable means of communication and public information, Beale maintains that TV is essentially a “circus,” an institution that systematically distracts people from what is really important for their lives and the state of the world. Television is, in Beale’s words,
… a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats, storytellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, sideshow freaks, lion tamers and football players. We’re in the boredom-killing business. If you want the truth, go to your God, go to your gurus, go to yourselves because that’s the only place you’re ever gonna find any real truth. But man, you’re never gonna get any truth from us. We’ll tell you anything you want to hear. We lie like hell! We’ll tell you any shit you want to hear. We deal in illusions, man. None of it is true!
Truth can be obscured or obliterated in more than one way, outright lying being only one of them. Television certainly disseminates lies on occasion, but not on a regular basis. Outright lying is too risky. Not reporting significant facts, or presenting arbitrary selections of facts, is a far more widespread practice—in a certain sense the standard practice of most newscasts. There are theoreticians who maintain that it is impossible to ever report the truth, that the best one can do is to convey “truths.” While it is unduly dogmatic to postulate an absolute impossibility of truth in reporting because of the inevitability of selection, it is not unreasonable if media analysts conclude that by and large it is futile to expect unbiased reporting from TV.
What emerges from Beale’s speeches most importantly, however, and from “Network” as a whole, is the idea that the primary method of keeping people in the dark is not so much a matter of lying or distorting facts, but something more basic altogether: It is the seemingly irrepressible tendency of television to turn everything it conveys into some sort of spectacle or entertainment. It is entertainment as such, with its built-in escapism, that leaves people in a state of ignorance, and that is also the aspect of television that lulls people most effectively into their habitual passivity. The essential nature of television as show biz is the core theme of the film. Time and again “Network” achieves its most hilarious and enlightening effects by presenting examples of programming in which even the most serious and deadly events are transformed into material for recreational amusement.
The format of the Beale Show is a case in point. The professed purpose of this alleged newscast is to inform–to confront the viewers with the contemporary world and its most serious and pressing problems. To attract greater numbers of viewers, however, and to hold their attention for a little while, Beale (himself stylized into a highly theatrical figure) is accompanied by such sidekicks as a soothsayer, who tries to predict future political events, a “Mata Hari” spy, who exposes gaudy “skeletons” in various closets, and a “Vox Populi” opinion monger who supposedly embodies “the voice of the people.” The show always opens with shots of the tightly choreographed studio audience who, under the direction of a prompter, cheerfully belts out the signature of the show: “I am mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” The various performers then appear in front of carefully designed sets, often in dramatic lighting, and supported by musical bursts. Beale’s lead rant, delivered like a preacher’s sermon in front of a church window imitation, always ends with Beale’s falling down in a swoon—accompanied by the enthusiastic applause of the crowd. The newscast, in other words, turns into news theatre: reporting degenerates into vaudeville, and social analysis into cheesy emoting.
The Howard Beale Show may be a comical exaggeration, but real and supposedly serious news broadcasts have always come with a sizable dose of histrionic staging and acting—and that is what “Network” is meant to point out. Newscasts are never straight presentations of reality; they always are carefully choreographed shows. To accomplish what they are supposed to accomplish, anchors, for example, have to be effective performers–performers in the sense in which movie stars have to be effective performers. Anchors are hired not just on the basis of their journalistic competence, but also because of their looks and the emotional rapport that they are able to establish with viewers. (At the beginning of his career as a television journalist Daniel Schorr once asked an older colleague about how to succeed in TV. The advice he received: “The secret of success is sincerity. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”) As performers newscasters need, of course, the assistance of make-up artists, hair dressers, and lighting crews. Increasingly they are also supported by music and audio technicians who skillfully add mood elements and atmosphere to whatever they show and say. Diana Christensen is rather understating the matter when she asserts that “even the News has to have a little showmanship.”
As part of an effectively choreographed news show individual reporters are explicitly encouraged to appeal to the basic emotions of their audience, not to their intellect. Complex analyses of inherently difficult subjects are never permitted on commercial TV, as these would turn off too many viewers. The duration of news items is always kept short because the average attention span of viewers is taken to be not longer than the length of a standard commercial. And the typical news broadcast always ends on a positive note, no matter what happened on any given day. Serious items, if unavoidable, are carefully counterbalanced with stories that please. In its entirety, in other words, the professional news show can rarely be hard and demanding; in either obvious or subtle ways it must always be fun. Its primary purpose, contrary to any pretense, is not to inform or to confront viewers with the reality of their lives. Only in the direst of circumstances would there be a real interruption of what has become by now standardized “infotainment.”
The figure in “Network” that goes to the greatest length in transforming even threatening visions and realities into consumer amusement is, of course, Diana Christensen. She makes a successful career for herself by engaging Communist activists and other political radicals to act and agitate in front of millions of spectators. Although she does not care the least about anything the aspiring revolutionaries and insurrectionists say or do, she can see that their colorful rhetoric and scandalous actions will make a captivating, profitable show. She can also be sure that the political content of something like the “Mao Tse Tung Hour” will not move its audience toward any kind of political action, but will remain in the average viewer’s mind an integral part of an evening’s titillating entertainment. Passive consumerism, after all, has become the basic mode of existence of the masses in the affluent industrial world. It has become a fact of life that televised wars, natural disasters, or dramatic political actions perform roughly the same function as horror movies, sitcoms, or political thrillers. Watching moving pictures as such is what most people want–after a hard day’s work, or just to kill time.
The basic irony belabored in “Network” is that Beale’s passionate agitation against television and its consumerism is very successful–as a television show. People do not turn off their sets, but flock to TV in even greater numbers. They cannot get enough of Beale’s spectacular emoting. The viewers of the show react like the audience in a parable by Søren Kierkegaard. In this parable the manager of a theatre runs out on the stage to announce to the crowd that a fire has broken out in the house. Understandably he is very excited, and his appeal is brought forth with great urgency. The crowd reacts with thunderous applause: the manager’s performance is terrific! Like the spectators in Kierkegaard’s story, today’s TV consumers are lost in the fun house. They will not stop watching and consuming, even when confronting their own doom.
The question arises: Are television viewers themselves to blame for their self-destructive condition, or are they victims of forces that they do not control—of the powerful communication industries in particular? Is it their own thoughtlessness, lack of vigilance, or habitual laziness that causes their degeneration, or is their behavior the result of the sort of programming that is generally available to them? “Network” addresses this question by illustrating two major aspects of decision making inside the corporation.
It seems obvious that whoever owns networks and affiliate stations will determine what goes on the air. It is for this reason that Beale is alarmed when he learns of the planned sale of UBS and its parent corporation to foreign investors. In his eyes it would be a serious loss of sovereignty and national self-determination if an American network ended up in the hands of Arabs. After successfully scuttling the deal through his grassroots action, Beale thinks he has won an important battle for democracy. At this point, however, Jensen tells him in no uncertain terms who is boss. He chides the mad prophet for his naive notions of national sovereignty and democratic self-government, and he postulates that the untrammeled rule of international corporations is the natural and legitimate order of the world:
You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples. There are no nations! There are no peoples! There are no Russians! There are no Arabs! There are no Third Worlds! There is no West! There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immense, interwoven, interacting, multi-variate, multi-national dominion of dollars! Petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars, Reich marks, rands, rubles, pounds and shekels! It is the international system of currency which determines the totality of life on this planet. That is the natural order of things today. That is the atomic, subatomic, and galactic structure of things today. And you have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and you will atone!
After submitting to the quasi-divine authority of Arthur Jensen and his “corporate cosmology,” Beale accepts the principle that corporations determine the content of television, and he delivers his programmatic speech to that effect. In this speech he describes his former vision of personal autonomy and democratic self-determination as a futile dream that has become obsolete. After stating “that democracy is a dying giant, a decaying political concept,” Beale asserts:
What is finished is the idea that this great country is dedicated to the freedom and flourishing of every individual in it. It’s the individual that’s finished. It’s the single, solitary human being that’s finished. It’s every single one of you out there that’s finished. Because this is no longer a nation of independent individuals. It’s a nation of some two hundred odd million transistorized, deodorized, whiter-than-white, steel-belted bodies, totally unnecessary as human beings and as replaceable as piston rods.
What Beale had criticized and tried to combat, the turning of people into passive consumers who are brainwashed and molded by the ubiquitous and omnipotent institution of television and its affiliated advertisement machine, is now acknowledged as inevitable and real. The individual who can think independently and critically is the necessary condition of any democracy, and this individual does not really exist in modern mass societies—at least not in sufficient numbers. As standardized and mass produced as all industrialized goods have become, so have the ideas, slogans, and clichés that guide people’s actions and political decisions. In this world the ideas of genuine personal autonomy and effective democratic self-government have become empty rhetoric or outright illusions. In Beale’s words:
Well, the time has come to say, is dehumanization such a bad word? Because good or bad, that’s what is so. The whole world is becoming humanoid, creatures that look human but aren’t. The whole world, not just us. We’re just the most advanced country, so we’re getting there first. The whole world’s people are becoming mass-produced, programmed, wired, insensate things, useful only to produce and consume other mass-produced things, all of them as unnecessary and useless as we are. That’s the simple truth you have to grasp–that human existence is an utterly futile and purposeless thing.
The story of Howard Beale highlights primarily the social dynamic of television; its primary theme is the subversion and demise of citizenship and democracy. The figure in which the more individual implications of television are addressed is Diana Christensen. The function of the love story between Diana and Max in particular is to depict the personal emptiness that television creates in the lives of its promoters and addicts. When Schumacher leaves his wife and home for Diana, his wife asks him: “Does she love you, Max?” And he answers:
I’m not sure she is capable of any real feelings. She’s the television generation. She learned life from Bugs Bunny. The only reality she knows is what comes over her teevee set. She has devised a variety of scenarios for us all to play, as if it were a Movie of the Week. And, my God, look at us, Louise. Here we are going through the obligatory middle-of-act-two scorned wife throws peccant husband out scene. But, no fear, I’ll come home in the end. All her plot outlines have me leaving her and returning to you because the audience won’t buy a rejection of the happy American family.
To learn life from TV or Bugs Bunny is to think of the major events in one’s life on the patterns of typical television episodes. Such episodes are mostly hackneyed stereotypes–formula-based constructions that have to meet the standards of the lowest common denominator audiences. They have no depth and little honesty, and their morality represents nothing but officially sanctioned platitudes. A person whose inner horizon is outlined by what appears on television will be confined to an existence of utter banality. To live a life along the lines of television episodes is to have no genuine life at all, and a person who lives television shows does not have a real self. The feelings, decisions, and actions of such a pseudo-life do not come out of a person’s own being, but are copied from the shallow and uniform productions of an entertainment industry that panders to the most brainless desires. Stripped of the formula episodes, behavior patterns, fads, and verbal clichés prefabricated by television–so the film concludes–a person like Diana is a blank. Nothing substantial ever grows or develops in a soul that is incessantly bombarded with and molded by the stimuli provided by the networks. If ever confronted with itself at a time of crisis or silence, such a soul will find itself in a terrifying void.
When Laureen Hobbs once insists that she must have total control of the political content of her show, Diana answers without hesitation that she can have it: “I don’t give a damn about the political content!” Diana does indeed not care whether the show has a left-wing or a right-wing message, or any message at all. She has no interest whatsoever in such things as democratic values or social justice. The fact that there are people who fight for their ideas or rights, that they suffer when they lose, or that people can be serious about finding the truth, all that means nothing to her. All she knows is that the shows must go on, that boredom must be killed, and that the emptiness of people’s lives must be covered up as best as possible with feeble-minded entertainment. It is this absence of mind and soul, appearing here in the context of politics and ideas, that characterizes Diana’s entire life. She does not really feel close to anyone, and whatever feelings and involvement she has are without nuance, intensity, or depth. Her personal relations are as stereotyped and fleeting as the shows that appear and disappear on the screens.
At times Diana is haunted by her void; she panics at the thought of her “desolate terrors.” She asks Max not to leave her, even though she does not like him or their relationship anymore. But Schumacher says:
It’s too late, Diana. There is nothing left in you that I can live with. You’re one of Howard’s humanoids, and, if I stay with you, I’ll be destroyed. Like Howard Beale was destroyed! Like Laureen Hobbs was destroyed. Like everything you and the institution of television touch is destroyed! You are television incarnate, Diana, indifferent to suffering, insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death are all the same to you as bottles of beer.
For an empty mind there is little more left than ever more entertainment, the kind of entertainment that the networks churn out: mental junk food that starves people of their humanity. Schumacher sarcastically offers as a happy ending what television consumers can expect when they are in trouble the way Diana Christiansen is:
Wayward husband comes to his senses, returns to his wife with whom he has built a long and sustaining love. Heartless young woman left alone in her arctic desolation. Music up with swell. Final commercial. And here are a few scenes from next week’s show.
As to the question of who or what is responsible for the dreariness of such a culture, the film does not give a simple answer. It does not point a finger at the power of corporations to leave it at that. While implying that network programs victimize people by short-changing their intelligence, depriving them of vital information, accustoming them to passive consumerism, lowering their intellectual standards, and drawing them away from more productive and meaningful activities, it also shows the complicity of the viewers in all this. “Network” illustrates what TV viewers do to themselves. It is their relentless demand for low-quality programs, after all, that allows corporations to create revenue in the way UBS does. “Network,” in other words, provides the same pessimistic picture of ordinary people that Plato once offered.
It has become fashionable to describe the market as democracy in action: “People vote with their dollars.” If there is truth to this description, one can say that it is the people themselves who undermine democracy by their behavior and choices. They are not only victims of corporations who feed them feeble-minded and debilitating programs, but also enablers who encourage the owners of networks to broadcast their questionable products. By consistently choosing thoughtless entertainment over substantial and demanding programs, by habitually preferring escapist histrionics to facing reality, they leave their lives and the world in the hands of those who are ready to abuse them. They undermine citizenship and democracy—democratically.
(From: Jorn K. Bramann: Educating Rita and Other Philosophical Movies)