Network, The 1976 film about a ratings-challenged news anchor who vows to kill himself on the air, and sees his Nielsen numbers skyrocket as he delivers loose-cannon jeremiads about politics and media and corporate America to viewers, is set to premiere on Broadway. Bryan Cranston plays anchor Howard Beale.
While the story is set four decades ago, the play — and the not-so-dated movie before it — raises some pressing and familiar issues about the media’s role in our lives today.
Beale is wrestling with the public’s dedication to the almighty box sitting in their family rooms. “This tube is gospel, this tube is the ultimate revelation,” he shouted on the stream-of-consciousness-driven Howard Beale Show, which took the place of his staid newscast. “This tube can make or break presidents, popes and prime ministers. This tube is the most awesome goddamn force in the whole godless world!”
The Howard Beale Show is something of a precursor to the personality-driven, soliloquy-rich content one finds on cable news today. The film, said The New Yorker, “was uncannily prescient about our outrage-fueled news-as-entertainment culture, foreseeing the likes of Sean Hannity, Jerry Springer and Laura Ingraham by decades.”
Every night, some 27 million to 29 million people tuned in to see Walter Cronkite deliver the CBS Evening News, according to Forbes magazine. Beale did a little better than the Most Trusted Man in America as his new program took off. As the anchor starts to become unglued, he’s visited by a ghost. He asks the apparition why he’s been approached. Because you have 40 million Americans watching, he is told.
People loved watching Beale’s “angry prophet” routine, but as happens with viewers, they lost interest over time. His boss, Diana Christensen — she’s played by Orphan Black star Tatiana Maslany — tells Beale he’s “dropping like a stone” when his audience share falls below a 40.
Network chiefs today can dream about that 40 share. The average audience for the evening newscasts on ABC, CBS and NBC stands at 5.2 million viewers apiece, said comScore TV Essentials, a 7% drop from the year before.
But that’s not to say people aren’t consuming awesome amounts of media. Last year, Fox News Channel generated some $2.67 billion in revenue, CNN tallied $1.59 billion and MSNBC took in $798 million, according to SNL Kagan. Seeking to reach its consumers on the go, Fox News launched its OTT product Fox Nation last week. For six bucks a month, users get on-demand programming starring the likes of star-polished personalities Tomi Lahren, Britt McHenry and Sean Hannity.
Fox News senior vice president of development and production John Finley likened the new channel to a combination of Netflix and Facebook Live. “It’s kind of a hybrid mix between the two,” Finley said, “in terms of format and offerings.”
It’s safe to say Beale would be blown away by Netflix, even though he would probably be disappointed by the platform’s lack of news. Netflix is spending close to $13 billion on original content this year, according to The Economist, way up from $8 billion a year ago. If one can’t swing the eleven bucks a month, one can simply stand in Times Square, a quick hop from where Network shows at the Belasco Theatre, and watch the massive digital billboard showing Netflix clips all day long.
Beale also lamented the breakdown in the lofty standards the news business once held itself to. “Television is not the truth,” thundered Beale. “Television is a goddamn amusement park. Television is a carnival, a circus, a traveling troupe of acrobats and storytellers, dancers and jugglers and sideshow freaks, lion tamers and football players.”
Speaking with The New York Times, Cranston — who, of course, played methamphetamine-making Walter White on Breaking Bad — shared his own thoughts on the state of news media. “We’re seeing it now, very clearly: agendas of different outlets, to promulgate their ideology,” he said. “Whether it’s liberal or conservative. It doesn’t matter, it’s out there. And you listen to the people who agree with you for affirmation, and you listen to the other side so you can get angry and shout at them.”
TV news today, Cranston added, is a “news-entertainment program.”
Fittingly, oversight of Beale’s program gets shifted from the news division to programming, with all the entertainment series. As programming chief Diana Christensen discusses the show with news president Max Schumacher, played by Tony Goldwyn, who portrayed the U.S. president on Scandal, she doesn’t think much of the network’s news standards. Its newscasts are “straight tabloid,” she says, mentioning a recent 1½-minute story about a naked lady riding a bike through Central Park. “I don’t think I’ll listen to any protestations of high standards of journalism,” Christensen scoffs. “If you’re gonna hustle, at least do it right.”
Speaking of U.S. presidents, Beale might be prepared to leap — rather than scream — out the window over a president who derides stories that criticize him as “fake news,” and famously denied a press pass to a CNN reporter he often clashed with. (Jim Acosta’s credentials were restored days later.) Just last week, President Donald Trump took to Twitter to express his desire for a federal news network, because, he said, CNN does not do a good job of portraying the U.S. A “worldwide” network would “show the World the way we really are, GREAT!” he said on Twitter.
The general public’s opinion of TV news isn’t a whole lot higher than the president’s. Some 50% of U.S. adults get news regularly from television, according to a study earlier this year from Pew Research. That’s down from 57% a year before that.
Around 46% of Americans turn to local TV for news, ahead of the 31% who use cable news and 30% who turn to broadcast network stuff.
And 43% of Americans often get their news online, while Pew said a whopping 93% of U.S. adults get at least some news online. Plenty of online sources are legit, with veteran reporters covering the basics of journalism. In the coming weeks, CBSN Local premieres, marrying CBS News’s four-year-old streaming channel with its local news outlets. WCBS New York is first.
But countless other online news sources fit the president’s fake news description.
Christensen, Network’s network programming chief, says TV networks have little responsibility to deliver responsible, virtuous content. “We’re not in the business of morality,” she tells news chief Schumacher. “We’re in the business of business.”
Its TV network was just one aspect of the portfolio belonging to Communications Corporation of America, the fictional behemoth in Network. CCA presaged the corporate monoliths controlling the media today.
Can we hold our news sources to higher standards than Christensen does? After all, the viewers are ultimately the ones who decide if a news network thrives or dives. Might we take a more active role, with remote or mouse or phone in hand, in clicking off the outlets offering news that does not hit our standards?
Howard Beale implores his viewers to take a stand against the untruths he felt were streaming out of the tube back in the ’70s. “Turn off your television sets!” he howls. “Put an end to this madness. Strike a blow for sanity. Right in the middle of this show. Turn off your TVs and set yourself free, goddamnit!”
His bosses weren’t wild about that message from their ornery host, but it didn’t end there. “Get up out of your chairs right now, stick your heads out the window, and yell,” Beale memorably exhorts, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore!”
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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.