in the movie Network, Max Schumacher,
a wizened television news executive, confronts Diana
Christensen, the ratings rainmaker who has usurped
both his position and his marital fidelity while turning
the fictional UBS network into a sensational circus
of mad prophets and fortunetellers.
television incarnate, Diana," he tells her. "Indifferent
to suffering. Insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced
to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death.
They're all the same to you as bottles of beer, and
the daily business of life is a corrupt comedy."
Chayefsky, who won his third Oscar for Network's
screenplay, was himself television incarnate once.
A pioneer of the medium in the early 1950s, the Bronx-bred
playwright was the leading figure in the rise of the
one-hour television drama, as well as one of its prime
theoreticians and advocates. His teleplay for Marty,
a poignant portrait of a homely butcher's search for
love, was the first television drama to make the leap
to the big screen, earning him his first screenwriting
Oscar in 1955. For the next two and a half decades,
until his death in 1981 at age fifty-eight, he continued
to write for both stage and screen, commanding unprecedented
control over his projects, including screenplays for
The Goddess, The Americanization
of Emily and The Hospital,
for which he won his second Oscar.
was a diminutive but stocky figure equipped with uncommon
tenacity. A producer once compared him to an office
safe, "one that fits under the counter and is
impossible to move." In one sense, Chayefsky
never strayed far from his roots in television and
the minutely detailed "drama of introspection"
for which he thought it and the American psyche were
uniquely suited. In another, he couldn't have strayed
farther when, in 1976, he unleashed Network,
his scathingly satirical indictment of the spectacle
television had become. Somewhere in the intervening
decades, it seems, Chayefsky had turned on television.
Or perhaps it had turned on him. "I still write
realistic stuff," he explained to Time
magazine when the film was released. "It's the
world that's gone nuts, not me. It's the world that's
turned into a satire."
twenty-nine-year-old Chayefsky came to television
after a stint in the Army (during which he wrote his
first play, a musical comedy titled No T.O. for
Love, after stepping on a German land mine)
and a few bad brushes with Hollywood, which he fled
in anger in 1948 after losing creative control of
a script. He started as a writer for NBC's Philco-Goodyear
series in 1952, where his work not only defined his
early, realist style, but also the medium itself.
Despite the association of his name with the golden
age of television, Chayefsky contributed to the medium
for less than three years, during which he penned
just nine one-hour dramas. Four of these—Marty,
The Bachelor Party, Middle of the
Night and The Catered Affair—made
it to the large screen (all but the last, which was
adapted by fellow television scribe Gore Vidal, with
studied slices-of-life displayed a mastery of the
vernaculars of the everyday and his belief that what
television necessarily lacked, for technical reasons,
in breadth could be made up for in depth. Intimate
dramas, or "minutely detailed studies of small
moments of life," were what television afforded
viewers, according to Chayefsky, and, in turn, what
viewers wanted from television.
are beginning to turn into themselves, looking for
personal happiness," he wrote in an early collection
of television scripts. "The offices of psychoanalysts
are flooded with disturbed human beings; the psychiatric
clinics of hospitals are too terribly understaffed
to handle the demands of the public. Hardly a newspaper,
at least in New York, does not carry a syndicated
psychiatrist or similar columnist. The jargon of introspection
has become everyday conversation. Our national bestsellers
are nonfiction books dealing with ways of achieving
personal adjustment to life. The theater and all its
sister mediums can only be a reflection of their times,
and the drama of introspection is the drama that the
people want to see. It may be foolish to say, but
television, the scorned stepchild of drama, may well
be the basic theater of our century."
sort of sweeping cultural diagnosis would later become
an integral part of Chayefsky's wrathful satires,
but even in the 1950s the writer was prone to reflecting
on the machinations of a blooming media culture in
a manner at once practical, cynical and hopeful.
foreword to his collected television plays, for example,
is almost entirely given over to a description of
the business, rather than the craft, of television
drama. "The advertising agencies are not villains
whose sole purpose is to destroy the artistic integrity
of a dramatic script," he writes with characteristic
pragmatism. "But, by definition, they are concerned
with selling their clients' products, and the twenty-two
or fifty-three minutes of drama that go between the
commercials are considered an essential part of the
sales talk. The agency is most concerned with neither
offending nor disturbing possible customers, a policy
that stringently limits the scope of the television
would offer a similarly wide-eyed analysis of the
market forces facing the makers of "art films"
in his 1958 preface to the screenplay for The Goddess,
a film in which he began to take on what he took to
be the superficial vacuity—the fundamental unreality—of
mass media culture.
based, despite the author's insistence to the contrary,
on the career of Marilyn Monroe, The Goddess
tells the story of Emily Ann Faulkner, a young girl
from Beacon City, Maryland, who, as Rita Shawn, gets
caught up in, manipulates and is ultimately ruined
by the hurly-burly of Hollywood. The first of his
movies not to originate on television, Chayefsky hoped
the lead role would go to Monroe herself (Broadway
actress Kim Stanley ended up in the part), and it
foreshadows the icon's death by several years, as
Shawn succumbs to the emptiness of her own fame.
never had a chance from the beginning," observes
the star's childhood sweetheart at the film's end,
prefiguring Network's theme of the human
price paid for abandoning reality in favor of disposable
would take on this price more literally in his 1964
film adaptation of William Bradford Huie's novel The
Americanization of Emily. Huie's novel
is a dramatic work set around the D-Day invasion,
while Chayefsky's absurdly comic adaptation seizes
on a minor plot point that has a Rear Admiral obsessed
with making a documentary film of the invasion to
confirm that the "first dead man on Omaha beach"
is indeed a sailor. Assigned to the task is Lt. Commander
Charles E. Madison, a profligate coward played by
James Garner, who eventually attains fame by becoming
said dead man.
also shows Chayefsky turning away from the pitch-perfect
dialogue for which his television scripts were famous
and toward a more baroque style, captured in Garner's
eloquently theoretical mini-sermons on cowardice,
Lt. Commander Madison's professed religion. Chayefsky's
brand of high-handed hyperbole would be perfected
in George C. Scott's bellowing tracts in the medical
satire The Hospital and later in the
messianic rantings of Howard Beale, Network's
"mad prophet of the airwaves."
is made of Network's superficial prescience,
forecasting, as it seems to have, such latter-day
media trends as reality programming and reckless,
chest-pounding punditry. But the film is about the
past as much as it is about the future. It tracks
Chayefsky's own disillusionment with television, which
he no longer sees as a forum for introspection, but
as a medium that not only abets, but requires, insincerity.
movie begins earnestly enough, with two old newsies—Howard
Beale (Peter Finch) and Max Schumacher (William Holden)—getting
drunk. Beale's days are numbered as the news anchor
for the struggling UBS network. He'll be fired soon,
and he mumbles about killing himself during the evening
50 share, easy," his colleague jokes, setting
off the darkly comic premise that occupies the rest
of the film.
the next newscast, Beale announces that he in fact
intends to commit suicide on the air in one week.
"That should give the public relations people
a week to promote the show," he says.
ratings go through the roof, and, after receiving
a vision of unknown origin, Beale turns anti-television
prophet, his cash value harnessed by Diana Christensen
(Faye Dunaway), an opportunistic executive who uses
him as the anchor for a stable of spectacle programming.
off your television sets. Turn them off now,"
a frenzied Beale implores viewers. "Turn them
off right now. Turn them off and leave them off. Turn
them off right in the middle of the sentence I'm speaking
to you now. Turn them off."
collapses in a heap to uproarious applause.
New Yorker's Pauline Kael savaged Network
when it was released, accusing Chayefsky of heavy-handed
condescension and sloppy nostalgia for the supposed
plenitude of pre-televisual culture. "There are
a lot of changes in the society which can be laid
at television's door, but soullessness isn't one of
them," she wrote. "TV may have altered family
life and social intercourse; it may have turned children
at school into entertainment seekers. But it hasn't
taken our souls, any more than movies did, or the
theater and novels before them."
charge of sentimentalism is not entirely off the mark.
Holden's Schumacher is a hard-nosed romantic, a figure
from an earlier time surrounded by soulless humanoids,
foremost among them Christensen, who, like Rita Shawn
in The Goddess, is existentially consumed
by "shrieking nothingness." Beale meanwhile
urges viewers to turn off their sets and look to themselves,
"because that's the only place you're ever going
find any real truth," echoing Chayefsky's early
view of television as an introspective medium.
beyond its author's nostalgia, Network contains
an argument about the peculiar property of what Beale
dubs "the most awesome goddamned force in the
whole godless world." The more Beale urges viewers
to tune out, the higher the ratings soar. The Mao
Tse Tung Hour, a program that airs the terrorist
activities of the Ecumenical Liberation Army—an
anti-capitalist cabal that's part SLA, part Black
Panthers—only amasses more capital for the network.
Kael criticizes the latter invention as reactionary,
taking it as Chayefsky's jab at the radical left's
willingness to sell-out. But in fact it is about television's
resilient ability to buy-in, to make any and every
statement serve the ratings and the bottom line, even
and especially statements that appear to subvert the
medium itself. Christensen doesn't want to dampen
their message, after all, but to capture it in all
its revolutionary glory. On television, revolution
isn't a threat. It's money in the bank. And Beale's
spiraling sermons on the evils of television only
lead viewers to embrace them all the more.
telling that Beale's ratings only flag when he begins
to speak the truth—not a human, liberating truth,
but the actual, corporate truth of television. When
one of the anchor's tirades fouls a corporate merger,
Beale is called in to see Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty),
the head of the network's parent company, where he
is instructed in the one "holistic system of
get up on your little twenty-one-inch screen and howl
about America and democracy," he is told. "There
is no America. There is no democracy. There is only
IBM and ITT and AT&T," and he is ordered
to take this message to the people.
new message of the inevitability of dehumanization
and the death of the individual—the truth behind
the "mass" in "mass media"—is
a ratings killer. It doesn't sell. When the soulless
soul of television is revealed, it loses its power.
Chayefsky's point is clear: what he'd once hoped would
be a vehicle for honest self-reflection, for sincerely
portraying "small moments of life," has
become a medium whose very existence depends on its
insincerity, on saying the opposite of what it means,
on preaching freedom when it projects enslavement.
is not, after all, Beale the prophet, but Beale turned
mouthpiece for the unappetizing truth of mass culture
who becomes the "first known instance of a man
who was killed because he had lousy ratings."
Nader reports that he was recently offered $25,000
to utter the phrase "another shameless attempt
by Nike to sell shoes" in a Nike television spot.
And many media observers have lately drawn attention
to television's ability—indeed it is a need—to
present constant critiques of the institutionalized
culture of which it is the center.
David Foster Wallace has called this the "aura"
of irony that surrounds television, most pointedly
in so-called anti-advertising spots, which self-mockingly
criticize the conventions of advertising while inviting
viewers to "congratulate themselves for getting
the joke," to stand out from the crowd, even
as they're counted as part of television's massive
Frank, editor of the journal The Baffler and
author of The Conquest of Cool, has
likewise observed that purveyors of mass culture have
long embraced a critique of mass culture, a technique
that harnesses "public mistrust of consumerism
to consumerism itself."
is this dichotomy that makes Chayefsky's script prescient
and Howard Beale tragic. Although the latter's appeals
to democracy, individuality and humanity are unquestionably
sincere, they are necessarily ineffectual, as viewers
tune-in only to honor their own rebellion against
television. Network presents an inverted
world in which Chayefsky's early, optimistic view
of the small screen can be endorsed, as loudly as
you please, but not heard.
is a bleak view; one that mirrors the darkness of
Chayefsky's own disillusionment. "We have become
desensitized to things that are usually part of the
human condition," the writer told Time.
"This is the basic problem of television. We've
lost our sense of shock, our sense of humanity."
mirrors, furthermore, that of the viewing public generally
over the last four decades, riddled with contradictions
though it may be. Poll after poll shows confidence
in television news programming at an all-time low
and a viewing public grown weary of incessant sensationalism,
while at the same time each hoopla-ridden spectacle
coincides with new all-time ratings highs.
recent pop cultural criticisms of television increasingly
indulge, rather than expose, the medium's liberation
theology. The Truman Show (1998), in
many ways, addresses the same themes as Network:
real life, exploited by an ominous, hegemonic force.
But the threat is defused. Nothing unfolds, except,
ultimately, freedom. It's a fairy tale, like The
Wizard of Oz or Willy Wonka and the
Chocolate Factory. A decade from now, children
will beg to stay up late to watch Jim Carrey escape
was first screened by television executives, it yielded
twin responses of delight and horror. Serious-minded
newsies, like Barbara Walters, worried that viewers
might take the movie's world of ratings-mad executives,
messianic anchormen and televangelizing soothsayers
seriously. Others thought they should. Television
alum Gore Vidal observed, "I've heard every line
from that film in real life."
year later, CBS paid $5 million for the rights to
air Chayefsky's controversial satire. "Like I
said," came the writer's response, "they'll
do anything for a good rating, even eat their young."