Clooney Breaks His Own Big Story, A Live 'Network'

By Lisa de Moraes
Thursday, October 6, 2005

CBS and George Clooney are planning a live TV remake of "Network," Paddy Chayefsky's critically acclaimed, scathing satire of the television industry, in which a network's news division encourages an aging anchor to rave madly on-air for the sake of bigger ratings.

I know -- but in 1976 it was considered shocking and outrageous.

Execs at CBS were taken by surprise when Clooney leaked word of the project -- being developed for next fall -- to the Associated Press while promoting his flick "Good Night, and Good Luck."

Ironically, that flick details how, in the '50s, CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow defied corporate and advertiser pressure to expose the scaremongering of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee's communist witch hunt.

Contacted yesterday, a CBS spokesman told The TV Column that the "Network" redo is "in the works" but they're "short on details" at this early stage.

It's not the first time Clooney has done a live TV movie for CBS. Five years ago, he executive-produced and co-starred in a live remake for CBS of the 1964 Cold War flick "Fail-Safe," in which a squadron of U.S. bombers is mistakenly sent to nuke Moscow.

Nearly 16 million viewers watched CBS's live, black-and-white production, which boasted a heavyweight cast that included Richard Dreyfuss as POTUS, Brian Dennehy, Sam Elliott, James Cromwell, Harvey Keitel and Don Cheadle.

Clooney and CBS CEO Leslie Moonves go way back. In the mid-'90s when Clooney was considered something of a "show killer" (people in the TV industry are notoriously superstitious, and if an actor works on a lot of series that fail, he/she can find him/herself branded a show killer -- like Paula Marshall), Moonves went ahead and cast him to play the lead role in a little series he had developed called "ER."

These days, whenever anyone writes about Chayefsky's flick, which won several Oscars including Best Screenplay, the word "prescient" is always attached.

Longtime news anchor Howard Beale, played by Peter Finch, is toiling at the lowest-rated evening newscast.

He is given two weeks' notice and that night, on the evening news, tells viewers he will commit suicide on the air on his final broadcast.

He's effectively canned, but the network is persuaded to let him apologize on the air the next night and go out with dignity. Instead, he rants again and ratings go through the roof. The network, encouraged by an ambitious young executive (Faye Dunaway), gives him his own nightly segment and bills him as the mad prophet of the airwaves; ratings are stupendous at first, but then begin to lag. The network decides to hire members of a terrorist organization to assassinate him on the air.

Clooney told the AP that when he screened the film for a group of "young people," none of them recognized that it was a dark satire:

"I couldn't understand it, [then] I realized that everything Chayefsky wrote about happened. . . . And so, suddenly, the idea that the anchor is more important than the news story, and that you'd be doing sort of reality-based shows, all happened," Clooney said in the interview.

"And when you have that great speech with Ned Beatty," as the chairman of a corporation trying to take over the network, "sitting there going, 'There is no U.S.A. and Soviet Union, there is only Xerox and IBM,' you realize all of those things were true, or came true."

Early in the film, when Beale is told he skews too old, he and news division head Max Schumacher (played by William Holden) get fractured at a bar, and Beale jokes he'll kill himself on the news the next night:

Schumacher: You'd get a hell of a rating, I'll guarantee you that. A 50 share easy. . . . We could make a series out of it. Suicide of the Week. Oh hell, why limit ourselves? Execution of the Week.

Beale: Terrorist of the Week.

Schumacher: I love it! Suicides, assassinations, mad bombers, Mafia hitmen, automobile smash-ups. The Death Hour! A great Sunday night show for the whole family. We'll wipe [expletive] Disney right off the air.

* * *

Which brings us nicely around to the news we got yesterday from someone at your-tax-dollars-at-work PBS network, that the late-night interview show "Charlie Rose," syndicated to more than 200 PBS affiliated stations nationwide, will be hosted Friday by the newly ex-CEO of Walt Disney Co., Michael Eisner.

He's going to interview John Travolta.

* * *

UPN announced yesterday it will give a full-season order to its new sitcom "Everybody Hates Chris," narrated and executive-produced by Chris Rock, whose life "inspired" the series about a teenager growing up as the eldest of three children in Brooklyn during the early 1980s.

So you're reading about it today because in one of those incredible coincidences that make you think there really is a Cosmic Grand Master Plan, this is the exact day the show is airing again!

When it premiered, the ballyhooed "Chris" snagged nearly 8 million viewers -- UPN's biggest audience ever for a comedy broadcast. And it beat the season debut of NBC's "Friends" spinoff, "Joey," in the same half-hour.

In its second broadcast, the show's audience shrank to about 6 million, which still is a really good comedy number for UPN, and let's not forget "Joey" snagged only 7.5 million that night.

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