Paddy Chayefsky was sitting in a small booth at the Russian Tea Room talking about television news. That's the subject he so brilliantly satirized in his highly successful movie, "Network."
It was a conversation that had begun an hour earlier in the office building on Seventh Avenue where he holes up to avoid telephone calls while he writes his movies and plays. He continued to talk about it while walking to the Russian Tea Room, which he describes as "the closest thing I have to a club."
When he entered the restaurant, Chayefsky surveyed the scene and marched over to a booth where his good friend, director Bob Fosse, was sitting with some movie executives. Heading toward his own booth, he stopped to say hello to Woody Allen, who was having lunch with a gentile princess who looked like she might wind up in a minor role in his next movie.
Finally seated, Chayefsky paused long enough to survey with amusement the passages of two lithesome blondes. They kept parading back and forth past Allen in a seeming audition for roles in one of his forthcoming sexual fantasies.
Chayefsky said he was mildly surprised that a lot of people in television news reportedly did not like "Network." The movie has grossed $35 million since its release. "I don't understand it," he said, "all I said in the picture is that this is what is going to happen. I never even said if it was bad.
"I don't know what TV news is. All I know is that it's not print news. I don't think anyone know what it is. The best reporters on TV are really print reporters. I mean, they're all newspaper people with the best backgrounds. But somehow or other, on TV, print reporting becomes headline reading. There's something wrong with it.
"And then, of course, there's the obligation that the networks feel in their news programs that they must not take sides. So there's determined objectivity to the point of blandness in TV news."
I asked Chayefsky why he picked television news as the focal point of his brutal satire. (He reminded me that "Laugh-In" producer George Schlatter, when asked after seeing a preview of the film if he though it was good satire, replied: "Satire, I thought it was a documentary.")
"I picked it," Chayefsky said, "because I thought it was funny. This practice of making fun of the news, these happy news shows. I wanted it to be a bit like Pirandello. They introduced this policy of happy news. They decided to do a little bit about the personalities of the people doing the news. 'Hey, when are you going to bring your dog's puppies on the show' Or, 'Frank won't be on the show because his wife is sick.'
"Little by little, the personal stuff starts to take over.You begin to see the internecine traffic underneath. Pretty soon, it's no longer news. It's a soap opera, in which the people giving the news become the attraction, rather than the news itself. So it ends up being like Pirandello: What is real and what is not?
It was getting late in the afternoon and the restaurant was almost empty. As we got up to leave. Chayefsky continued to talk about the reaction of a lot of the top people in the television industry to "Network." "If I had written this movie in the same way about any other industry they would have understood and approved," he said. "But the minute I said that television is like any other industry in this country, people in television balked."
But some people at the networks have not balked unduly. CBS has paid a reported $5 million for the right to show "Network" on television. As we stood outside the restaurant, Chayefsky called with some malice that when the picture was being made at MGM, a top official of the studio's television department predicted "Network" would never get on television.
Chayefsky chuckled for a moment, then said good-bye and headed back to his office to continue to work on a new movie. It's about scientists, and will eventually do for them what "Hospital" did for doctors and "Network" did for the continuing soap drama that Chayefsky thinks is television news.