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'Network' Lives On, and Again Life Imitates Art

FCC "chairman for life" Richard Wiley actually was chairman of the Commission in 1976 when he attended a pre-release screening of the now-classic satirical movie Network in Washington. 

At a reception afterwards, I asked him about one of my favorite scenes in the film, the one in which the TV network president frets about the plan for a "pornographic news show" as proposed by the programming VP Diana Christensen's (the Faye Dunaway character).

"The FCC'd kill us," says the top executive.

"The FCC can't do anything except rap our knuckles," sneers Frank Hackett (played by Robert Duvall), the factotum from the corporate giant that has acquired the TV network.

I asked Wiley what the FCC would do in that situation. With his famous smile and evasive political acumen, the regulator-in-chief grinned, "We'd probably just rap their knuckles."

Over the years, I occasionally remind Wiley about that conversation, and even in this post-nipplegate era, he again muses that a knuckle-slap would be the only punishment.

The scene came to mind as I read the new book Mad As Hell by New York Times writer Dave Itzkoff, published this week and coinciding with the angry howling about how the FCC should handle the proposed Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger. After all, an underlying theme of Network is the corporatization of media.  Moreover, I read Mad As Hell in the context of yet another poll last week affirming that Americans believe the country is going in the wrong direction.

That's the kind of situation that inspires Howard Beale (Peter Finch's Oscar-winning "mad prophet of the airwaves") to proclaim the titular mantra, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore."

The current confluence of media politics and public malaise makes a great backdrop to revisit the best media movie ever made.  As Itzkoff reports, Network is the favorite film (and we assume a formative inspiration) of Stephen Colbert, Glenn Beck, Keith Olbermann and Bill O'Reilly: modern incarnations of Beale on networks that are far less concerned about knuckle raps.  

Unfortunately, Itzkoff never bluntly declares that screenwriter/producer Paddy Chayefsky's "United Broadcasting System" was a prescient forbearer of Fox and the many opinionated cable networks that fit into Chayefsky's concept of what the "dehumanizing institution" of television would become.  

The culmination of Howard Beale's revelatory arc is the come-to-Jesus harangue that Arthur Jensen (played by Ned Beatty) delivers to him in a darkened cathedral (performed by the New York Public Library boardroom; Chayefsky's first choice was the New York Stock Exchange boardroom, but NYSE reneged when its managers figured out that corporate America would not look good in this scene. They were right: it didn't).     

Jensen, as the head of the Communications Corporation of America, chastises Beale for "meddling with the primal forces of nature" and reminds him of the "corporate cosmology" that includes a "perfect world" controlled by "one vast and ecumenical holding company." 

"There is only one holistic system of systems: dollars," thunders Jensen. Beale gets the message.

Conveniently, HBO ran Network on the day that Comcast and Time Warner Cable unveiled their merger.  Of course, I have copies of the movie close at hand or could quickly find it in the cloud, but I DVR'd the show to see it as I read the book.  Watching the movie (which I highly recommend you do on a regular basis) and reading Itzkoff's book became important reminders about how today's media-driven culture has inserted itself even more substantially into our lives than Chayefsky, co-producer Howard Gottfried and director Sidney Lumet (another TV pioneer) could have imagined. 

As an admirer of Chayefsky's perspicacious writing, I was fascinated by the backstory (some of which I knew) that fomented this script. Mad As Hell carries the subtitle "The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies." For a lifelong fan of film, my main question was, "Why did it take 38 years to write this book" ? It's a worthy quick-read, especially for industry people who enjoy the gossip (albeit it 40 years late) and for movie buffs who appreciate production trivia (Kathy Cronkite, daughter of Walter, plays the kidnapped heiress-turned-gun-toting terrorist; William Holden was best man at the wedding of Ronald Reagan and Nancy Davis; Dunaway demanded control over her nude scene).

More significantly, it's an inside look for anyone who appreciates the creative process and production tension. While the book is padded with peripheral contemporaneous stories and interviews with current TV luminaries, Mad As Hell adds countless insights about how and why the movie was made this way. It triggers the desire to see this great movie again. 

As is true of much great literature, your perceptions of a story and characters change as you see them from different places in your own life.  At that swank Washington screening when I first saw Network, I appreciated its insights on business, love and personal relationships based on what I knew and understood at that young point in life. Clearly, this movie has looked different every time I've seen it through the decades, when I understood more about business, work, marriage, world affairs and - to be very narrow - to machinations within our multichannel media ecosystem.

It's the same movie, but it says something different every time. Mad as Hell  fleshes out how the grown-ups who made the movie in the mid-1970s brought big truths to the story.

Beale spells it out in one of his harangues: "Woe is us if it (media control) ever falls into the hands of the wrong people."

After all the hoopla and Oscars for Chayefsky and three actors, Network did not win that year's Academy Award for Best Picture.

That award went to Rocky, the story about a powerhouse from Philadelphia.

How appropriate.

Gary Arlen waxes on digital developments from Arlen Communications (