Back when George Bush was enjoying a 22% approval rating and the world's disdain, I hijacked the living room TV to subject my mother to Keith Olbermann. Having to endure Fox News daily, I was only too happy to oblige. But out of what was once known as “equal time,” I came to a conclusion that many Americans have missed. Cable news isn’t selling news, they're selling anger. That said, long before I recognized the format's potential for appeal, it was exploited by the executives in 1976’s, “Network.”
The life of UBS Anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) has fallen apart. His wife dead, he's drinking and his erratic behavior mirrors the diminished ratings. His fate is sealed. Given the chance to gracefully bow out, his explanation is simple. “I’ve run out of bullshit to tell you,” he broadcasts live.
But UBS’s scramble to contain the controversy is cut short in realization that the overwhelming attention can translate to ratings. “He’s articulating the popular rage – what’s wrong with that," Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) rationalizes to her bosses.
The fact that the network is on the verge of bankruptcy certainly helps the hierarchy seize on Dunaway's epiphany. Of course, in real life networks were beginning to challenge the idea that producing news meant company losses. Contributing to the deficit was that FCC licensing required media companies to deliver responsible reporting as a public service.
Today, we can only wonder where that social contract has gone as the likes of Sean Hannity hyper-extenuate the truth and bends radio frequencies beyond recognition.
As disturbing an image Sean Hannity is, he pales in comparison to the overblown caricature portrayed in Finch's Oscar winning performance. He sheds his desk and becomes the “prophet of the airwaves” - stained glass and audience included.
On the other hand, he does mostly delve in truth - high gas prices, corrupt politicians, crime and broken schools. Making it all the more easy for his audience to comply when he implores them to go to their windows and shout, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore."
A national phenomena, Beale can even insult his audience and commit high holy treason against the ratings system. "Only 3% of you have read a book this year. We're all you know, but you're real not us so turn off your TV and live," he rants.
It only appears to go too far when he reveals that the network is being bought by a Saudi Company - responsible for gas prices and the foreign buying of America.
Startlingly, the UBS president decides that Beale simply needs a re-calibration that preaches the common good through corporate allegiance by the masses. Beale shifts his ideological bent and his ratings go with it.
Equally insane, the president is blind to that and believes the preacher can muster enough converts to his new cause before the company tanks.
The executives are less optimistic and realize their careers are in jeopardy. Their solution: carrying out a live TV assassination of Beale.
At this point, the film has gone too far for me - until the narrator puts everything in perspective.
"Howard Beale is the only man in history to be murdered for low ratings."
The ironic tone of the delivery is inescapable and reins in the film's excess - leaving 1976 in position to see that it's reality that's over the top and only one demand should have remained.
We're mad as hell about our news media and we're not going to take it anymore.
Cable news and talk radio, the message was clearly missed.