When the movie "Network" was released in 1976, it was billed as satire.
In the film, veteran TV newsman Howard Beale, played by Peter Finch, sparks a ratings bonanza for the fictional UBS television network when he threatens to kill himself during his final broadcast. Beale was reacting to the network's decision to end his 25-year anchor career because his ratings were sagging and he was getting too old.
Nearly 35 years later, Paddy Chayefsky's prescient screenplay on the state of television and network news has become less of a dark comedy and more of an eerily accurate preview of what critics say many 21st-century news programs have actually become: voyeuristic, reality-based interactive shows hosted by opinionated newscasters and trash-TV moderators. The thin line between news and entertainment has blurred, and in some cases, totally disappeared.
In Chayefsky's fictional world, Beale becomes the hottest thing since color television when he inadvertently resurrects his dead career with an emotional on-air breakdown and rumbling tirade. His plea to viewers to yell out their windows, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore," was perhaps the forerunner of the views expressed by some of today's radio shock jocks and TV news talk-show hosts.
"We struck the mother lode!" exclaims Diana Christensen, the ambitious programming executive played by Faye Dunaway, who transforms Beale's newscast into a ratings juggernaut and Beale himself into "The Mad Prophet of the Airwaves."
In today's news world, real versions of Beale's show now saturate broadcast and cable television. Some fall under the category of entertainment programming. Others remain in the news department, where partisan hosts and anchors are often part of the news. Many of today's mainstream journalists moonlight as hosts and gadflies on reality-based programs and prime-time game shows.
"Network" will be shown at the Newseum on March 22 as part of the film series "Reel Journalism With Nick Clooney." Veteran Washington, D.C., journalists Gordon Peterson and Arch Campbell of ABC7/WJLA-TV will join Clooney before the movie to discuss the state of TV news today. At the conclusion of the movie, Peterson and Campbell will answer questions from the audience. The program begins at 7:30 p.m., and tickets may be purchased online or at the door.