Tonight, America comes full circle with "Network." Padddy Chayefsky's 1976 movie satire on the ruthlessness of television and the coporate-technocrative state gets its first national TV showing on CBS under the full sponsorship of te Chrysler Corp. No. 10 on Fortune's list of the 500 largest industrial corporations.
"I think it's going to get a terrific rating." Chayefsky said yesterday from New York. "I'm afraid to watch it myself, after what TV did to 'Hospital.' But - I probably will."
MGM advertised "Network" with the tag line, "Television will never be the same." That was hypetic license, however, or just wishful thinking. Television took this assault unblinkinhly in stride even if audience did literally cheer the film in theaters (and now will use the assault itself to attract audiences. Despite actor Ned Beatty's flamming oratory in the film about the world being ruled not by governments but by corporations. Chrysler is shelling out a reported $700,000 to sponsor the telecast.
What may never be the same are our attitudes toward television and its presence in the American home, because "Network," to use the phrase of one of the characters in the film, "articulated the popular rage," not only when it comes to taking television sitting down but when it comes to feeling generally like a victim of systems that are supposed to be one's servants.
Whatever one may think of "Network" as a movie - and, really, it is as ferociously entertaining as captured combat footage - it has to be regarded as a seminal film in the new media - consciousness of the 70s.
People who were sick to death of complaining about television found themselves invigorated and re-energized after Chayefsky's marvelous and hilarious conniption. If it was preposterous, it was also recognizabley passionate. It was breathless with indignation.
In addition, the film was prophetic on a number of points. "Bits and pieces have sure come to be, haven't they?" notes Chayefsky. He happens to have a TV Guide item on his desk from last June in which it was revealed CBS had plans to do a series, "Voices of Guns," based on the exploits of the Symbionese Liberation Army.
This sounds more than vaguely reminiscent of a scheme hatched by a deranged programmer in "Network."
Much of the plot of the film involves the struggle between the news and enterainment divisions of a mythical fourth TV network called UBS (initials later adopted for the mythical fourth TV network in TV's own "America 2-Night"). The entertainment division, the money-maker mafia, wins, and UBS offers viewers a ghastly news show staged as a circus, replete with resident "soothsayer" and studio audience.
It isn't a giant leap from that show to ABC's "20/20" - not the reformed, streamlined version but the slapstick journalism of the show's notorious premiere. Nor is the appeal of Chayefsky's "mad prophet of the airwaves," Howard Beale, so far removed from the spleeny and shwoy approach of ABC's pseudo-populist reporter Geraldo Rivera, who on a recent telecast came out firmly against the Ku KluX Klan. The reporter as performer is becoming more and more an accepted concept in network TV news, as it has been in local TV news.
Among the new-season ofterings of CBA, which has ravaged the bottom drawer for programming this year, is a series called "The American Girls." in which two shapely babes roam the country in a video van for a TV news show patterned after "60 Minutes." Meanwhile the network also airs the information "People" program, which ends with glamorous reporter Phyllis George perched in her video van and billboarding next week's stories. NBC, meanwhile, is putting on the heavy promotional push to turn its reporter Jessicca Savitch, something of a looker herself, into another superstar of the Barbara Walter's magnitude.
The curious thing about TV industry reaction to "Network" when the movie came out is that the news people screamed the loudest, even though the film depicts them as victims of profit-mad network executives.
There was scarcely a squeal from the carpeted towers, but network news people when questioned, didn't protest much. They were so adamant about Chayefsky being out in left field that his movie gained credility with each new rebuttal.
Walters, who owes half her soul to ABC News and the other half to the entertainment division, complained, "What troubled me was that it is such an exaggerated picture of our industry. It is obviously the result of Paddy Chayefsky's bitterness toward what happened to him in television."
Chayefsky responded: "I've never had any bitter experiences in television"; and yesterday, recalling that a series idea he submitted years ago was never picked up, he remarked, "I'm really glad it was turned down, because I wouldn't want to have to be hysterical all the time. Television is an hysterical medium. They really do go crazy seven days a week."
Paul Friedman, producer of the NBC News "Today Show," found Chayefsky's film "outrageous and heavy-handed" and declared: "Television is simply not as powerful as Paddy Chayefsky thinks it is."
Richard Salant, president of CBS News, said he had read the script for the film and found it "awful - it was such a caricature." Would it be a hit? "Oh, Jesus Christ!" said Salant. "I don't know. I'm the guy who said '60 Minutes' wouldn't work."
Salant said that "nothing whatever" in the script rang true to him. "I tried to put it out of my mind as fast as possible. The thing I like least about it is that Walter Cronkite's daughter is in it, but that's something you can't control."
Kathy Cronkite has a brief role as as urban guerrilla in the film. Told of Salant's complaint about his daughter's participation, all Cronkite himself would say was, "Oh, for crying out loud!"
As for the film, Cronkite, a longtime friend of "Network" direcotr Sidney Lumet, said, "I don't find any great significance in it. I might be irritated by those who find it important. To me, it was an amusing little entertainment."
Chayefsky, a survivor of television's Golden Era and the author of one of its genuine classics. "Marty," has never considered "Network" a harangue against television and said so when the film came out. "TV is a symptom." he said then, "a symptom of something awful that could turn into something worse."
Even before CBS could schedule its showing of "Network," NBC began airing its answer to the film, a perfectly terrible series about a mythical fourth network. Trans Atlantic Broadcasting, called "W.E.B." The tidy irony here is that the program was created by producer Lin Bolen, who was said to have been (and who has said she thinks she was) the model for the Diana Christenson character played by Faye Dunaway in "Network." Bolen was formely a programming executive at NBC.
Chayefsky has denied repeatedly that he based the character on Bolen or that, as was reported, he followed her around taking notes he did followed around such network news luminaries as John Chancellor [WORD IllEGIBLE] (NBC). "I wouldn't know Lin Bolen if she were sitting here right now." Dunaway did meet Bolen, Chayefsky says, but that was after the script was written.
As for "W.E.B.," a friend advised him to look at it "to see if I was getting ripped off," and he saw one episode. "If I were getting ripped off, I certainly wouldn't say anything, because I would be embarrassed to have anybody think that show was derived from anything I wrote," Chayefsky says. The show is a flop anyway and a prime candidate for imminent cancellation.
If he were writing "Network" today, Chayefsky would only change one thing about the script. "I would cut out some of the swearing," he says. "Network people don't swear that much. They only swear about half that much."
CBS will cut out most of the swearing for him, although the network censor has left in three mentions of the word "bull -" which is pivotal to the plot, since the UBS network is thrown into pandemonium when Howard Beale (played by the late peter Finch) says it on the air.
It is doubtful that CBS or its switchboard will be thrown into pandemonium when it is said on-the-air on the air, as it were. Nothing much fazes TV viewers these days. They've seen it all, brother.
There is the simultaneously delightful and frightening possibility, however, that life will imitate art during another scene in the film - the one where Howard Beale tells viewers to go to their windows and shout, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it any more."
Chayefsky doesn't want to predict whether or not this will occur, but if it did, it wouldn't be unprecedented. "It happens a lot," he says. "I get letters about it happening all the time - after Proposition 13, or during the New York blackout. People were yelling, 'I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it any more.'"
He is told he truly tapped a nerve in the contemporary psyche and added a phrase to American folklore.
"I guess I did, but I didn't mean to. I never thought it would catch on like it did. But the plain truth is, the people are mad as hell. That's for sure. That's for sure."