Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Notes on NETWORK

I'm sure I'm not the only person who wishes that screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky was alive today to witness our White House situation.  A millionaire of the WALL STREET "Greed is good" 1980s era becomes a 21st Century network reality TV game show host, runs for the presidency with no previous political office experience...and wins.  He is now President of the United States.  What would Paddy Chayefsky, the man who wrote 1976's NETWORK, have to say about this turns of events?  I had not started my professional TV career when NETWORK came out.  But I do vividly recall being absorbed and fascinated by this surreal satire of network television.  It was so stunning and provocative that I saw it more than once.  And each time I saw it, the movie audience was packed.  And shocked.  Remember, this came out when TV was quite different -- and quite innocent compared to how it is today.  The first thing that shocked and fascinated us in NETWORK was that TV news anchor Howard Beale announced on his show that he'd commit suicide and co-workers in the control room really weren't paying that much attention to this poor soul having a nervous breakdown.
NETWORK tapped into how corporations were gobbling up America.  Look at the senior three networks today.  They're now attached to film companies.  The parent company of ABC is Disney, NBC is tied to Universal, and CBS is attached to Paramount.  The network morning news shows used to have film critics every Friday review new domestic and foreign film releases.  They don't have film critics anymore.  They publicize corporate film releases whether they're good or bland.  We see the network morning shows heavily promote whatever product the attached film company has released or has in production.
If you look at NETWORK today -- and you should -- it's as if the soulless and powerful network executive, Diana Christensen, won.  The Best Actress Oscar went to Faye Dunaway for that performance.  She manipulates Howard Beale's madness into big ratings for the low-rated newscast which means increased revenue for the corporation.  She gets the green light to pitch new shows.  At that time, America still got comfort in variety shows and sitcoms like spin-offs from THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW.  Diana wants "angry shows."  She wants "a show developed based on the activities of a terrorist group" and "a homosexual soap opera."  This was well before the days of TV  shows like COPS and other reality TV shows, before Rodney King footage, before people starting TV careers and becoming celebrities because they were in the O.J. Simpson trial aired on live TV and before we got Donald Trump as host of NBC's THE APPRENTICE.  Faye Dunaway deserved that Oscar.  NETWORK's Diana Christensen opened the door for the likes of TV star Donald Trump.
Today, it seems like millions of Americans can identify with and feel the same way as Howard Beale:  "I'm as mad as hell...and I'm not going to take this anymore!"
Every time I saw NETWORK in a movie theater, the audience howled with laughter that his revamped network news show now had a studio audience that applauded.  Have you seen the 8:00 hour of GOOD MORNING AMERICA on ABC?  There's a studio audience that now applauds and cheers when it's time for Lara Spencer to read pop culture news.

I watched the Oscars the night that the late Peter Finch was announced as Best Actor for NETWORK.  I watched with some Caucasian co-workers in Milwaukee.  A couple were stunned and looked each other in amazement.  Why?  Because Peter Finch's widow accepted the Oscar and gave a lovely acceptance speech for her late love.

She was a gorgeous and gracious black woman.  A couple of voices in the room said, "Who is that accepting the Oscar for him?"  When she announced that she was Mrs. Finch, their jaws dropped.

NETWORK.  A classic.  And it's still painfully relevant.

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