Breaking ‘Mad’

Network, the stage adaptation of the 1976 film about a struggling TV network and its increasingly unglued news anchor, Howard Beale, who draws enormous ratings after he threatens to blow his brains out on the air, premieres on Broadway Dec. 6. Bryan Cranston, who portrayed Walter White on AMC smash Breaking Bad, plays Beale. It is a role Cranston performed at the National Theater in London, before Network shifted to New York.

Joining Cranston onstage is Tatiana Maslany as network programming exec Diana Christensen and Tony Goldwyn as news division president Max Schumacher. Both thesps are television veterans: Maslany starred in BBC America series Orphan Black and Goldwyn played President Grant in Scandal.

After seeing the play in previews, we wondered how Howard Beale would handle the media world in 2018--a president dismissing the “fake news” that criticizes him, 24/7 networks catering to our every desire, and TV screens everywhere, including in everyone’s pocket.

Here’s how we saw it playing out.


You seem pretty blown away by the idea of like 40 million people watching your newscast every night. It bothers you that the companies which own television networks have such influence on viewers, who absorb every last bit of what they see on television, taking it all as gospel simply because it’s on TV.

You said people are better off trying to live their lives without turning on the boob tube.

“Turn off your television sets!” you bellowed up on that stage. “Put an end to this madness and strike a blow for sanity…Set yourself free, goddamnit!”

Well, Howard, you wouldn’t believe what the world is like here in the waning days of 2018. You thought television dominated people’s lives back in the quaint 1970s. You felt it was odd that so many people would carve out time for the evening news. We call that “appointment viewing,” and we don’t do too much of it anymore.

Step outside of the Belasco Theatre, Howard. C’mon. You’ll find this interesting.

Let’s head west. Times Square is less than a block away. Looks like you could use the fresh air. We’ll be there in two minutes.

The theater next to yours is showing Head Over Heels. That one’s about the Go Go's--they came out a little bit after you died. Rock band. All females. Revolutionary stuff.

Not that important.

A Star Wars exhibit over there. That movie’s still way popular.

Times Square is just ahead. Look at that screen! That’s ABC News there on 44th and Broadway. This is where they do Good Morning America.

You called television “a carnival, a circus, a traveling troupe of acrobats and storytellers, dancers and jugglers and sideshow freaks, lion tamers and football players.”

Sounds like a winning morning show to me.

Lookit that crawl, sharing the latest from ABC News. A roadside bomb killed three American soldiers in Afghanistan. We’ve been at war there for like 17 years. Jameis Winston settled with the Uber driver who said he groped her, says ESPN. Winston is a quarterback. Uber is kind of like taxis, only better. James Comey said the acting attorney general is “not the sharpest knife.” Comey ran the FBI until he got fired by President Trump.

The president doesn’t think much of the news business. He calls it fake news. He barred a CNN reporter from entering the White House because he didn’t like the guy’s reporting. CNN is, like, all news, all the time. Cable TV. President Trump put something on Twitter about starting up a federal news network because he feels CNN doesn’t do a good job of portraying the U.S. Such a network would “show the World the way we really are, GREAT!” said President Trump.

Twitter? It’s a website where anyone can post anything. Even the president. Especially the president.

President Trump knows TV. He worked in it before he was president. That may be a prerequisite for all future presidents.

Speaking of state-run news, that giant screen, looming above Times Square, belongs to a Chinese news agency, Xinhua. And look at those commercials over there! An M&M clings to the top of the Empire State Building like King Kong. Santa drinks a Coca Cola as his reindeers fly above him. Dynamic stuff! It’s been some time since Mikey ate his Life Cereal, and nothing came between Brooke Shields and her Calvins.

Giant TV screens everywhere, Howard! Check out that one over there. It shows Netflix clips all the time. Yeah, Netflix. Internet TV. Pretty much anything you want, at any time. Series. Movies. Documentaries.

No news though.

They got this show Stranger Things. It’s these boys, and they ride bikes, and they end up at some weird hidden government lab in their town. Eleven bucks a month for Netflix. Speaking of eleven, there’s this girl who sneaks out of the government lab. She digs Eggos. The boys dig her.

That screen is all Netflix, all the time. The Kominsky Method. That’s a comedy series with Michael Douglas. Got nominated for a Golden Globe, in fact. Buster Scruggs, a movie from the Coen Brothers. Movie people do TV now. Lots of it!

That’s a Trevor Noah comedy special. He hosts The Daily Show. You’d like that one. It’s, like, pretend news, only it kind of is news. They skewer lying politicians and shady business folks and stuff like that. Jon Stewart used to host it. He was great. Not sure what happened to him.

I know, I know. It’s a lot to take in. I mean, that Gap store has its own video screen. So people can watch jeans. And that one over there is operated by Swatch. So people can watch watches. Heck, that food truck even has a screen. Buy seven meals, Mr. Beale, and the eighth is free. Up for some falafel?

Maybe we should sit for a bit.

Screens are all over the place, not just parked in our family rooms. And get this--just about every single person you see has a little tiny TV in their pocket. Yes, even the guy in the Mickey Mouse costume.

Television “is the most awesome goddamn force in the whole godless world,” you said. It can “make or break presidents, popes and prime ministers.” Man, ain’t that the truth. We watch it on the train. We watch it sitting on a park bench. We’d watch it in church, if we still went.

News. Sports. Entertainment.

All of it. All the time.

It was a much different world when you went “angry prophet” on The Howard Beale Show, bud. I saw those guys in your control room, hitting on that female staffer. Dudes don’t really get away with that anymore. Diana Christensen said The Howard Beale Show was “dropping like a stone” when it fell below a 40 share.

A 40 share!

Your parent company, Communications Corporation of America (CCA), didn’t like that the news division always loses money, that it posted a $32 million deficit, that news divisions are expected to lose money.

Well, well, well. The three big cable news networks booked a combined $5 billion last year, according to SNL Kagan.

There are cable news networks that cater specifically to one side of the partisan divide. They mostly deliver opinion, not news. Is that good for society? Who the heck knows? But it’s good for business. Diana told the news president, “We’re not in the business of morality,” when Schumacher was iffy about having you on the air after you got weird. “We’re in the business of business.”

To be fair, some things are pretty similar today to how they were back in your time, Howard. “I don’t know what to do about the depression and inflation and the defense budget and crime in the streets and the RUSSIANS,” you howled, right before you urged viewers to get out of their chairs, stick their heads out the window, and yell, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore!”

By the way, great line. Put that on a T-shirt and you’re set for life.

We were kind of OK with the Russians for a couple decades, Howard. But things are pretty sketchy with them again. Their president is peculiar.

It’s a similar story with Saudi Arabia, who you told your viewers was the secret backer of the private equity firm looking to buy CCA. (Sweet scoop!) It looks like the Saudi Crown Prince ordered the murder of this journalist who was living in the States. You told viewers you wanted a million telegrams sent to the White House, urging the president to kill the deal for the Saudis.

We don’t send telegrams anymore. We send emails and texts. Most people probably think Telegram is a text-y offspring of Instagram.

CCA boss Arthur Jensen had an interesting take on TV. “Television isn’t the message--television is the hardware,” he said. “Like any hardware, it is prone to obsolescence.”

He knew your ratings are down, but said you had some good ideas. To him, that meant something. Too bad Diana didn’t see it the same way. “I’m a television executive,” she said. “I couldn’t give a flying fuck about ideas.”

You said some heady stuff on The Howard Beale Show, Howard. Kudos for that. Before you signed off the other day, you said, “The only total commitment that any of us can have is to other people.”

Speaking of other people, it’s probably time for you to get back to the theater. Be with your people, Howard. Make them laugh. Make them think. Put on a good show.

And don’t worry about the Nielsens. Rough ratings never killed anyone. 

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.