Recently, I saw for the first time a film called “Network”, directed by the recently deceased Sidney Lumet. “Network” is a satirical film about the television industry written by Paddy Chayefsky, who won an Academy Award for his original screenplay for the film, which is known as one of the greatest scripts ever written. Having been “experienced” (a very loose term) in television production in high school, I could almost relate to the things I saw in the film. The film portrays the men and women working in television as hungry for sensationalism, no matter what the cost, and to them, the television, or “the tube” as it is sometimes called, is the source of knowledge, truth, and life for viewers. And of course, I can identify this to my faith.
The film opens with news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch, who won a posthumous Academy Award for his performance) and Max Schumacher (William Holden) getting drunk in New York as Max tells Howard that because of poor ratings and Howard’s alcoholic behavior since his divorce, his news show will be cancelled. So what does Howard do? Two weeks before his last broadcast, he proclaims that he will kill himself, right on the news program. The ratings skyrocket. And Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway, who also won an Academy Award), a young producer for UBS, the television network carrying Howard’s show, sees this as an opportunity to create sensational television. So, by convincing her bosses at UBS of this (including Max, whom she convinces in ways that I won’t go into in this blog), Howard is kept back on the air, and as his rants get crazier and crazier, the ratings go higher and higher. (By rants, I mean that instead of giving the news, he goes on air complaining about the government, the industry, and so on, even using obscenities that normally would not be used on public television.) One of his rants sticks out in particular:
HOWARD: I don't have to tell you things are bad. …We know things are bad—worse than bad. They're crazy. It's like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don't go out anymore. …Well, I'm not gonna leave you alone. I want you to get mad! …So I want you to get up now, I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now, and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out, and yell, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take this anymore!”
And this man has gained so much attention all over the country, people listen to him—so much so, that people all over New York are standing outside of their apartments and yelling out the windows, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take this anymore!” (This, by the way, is one of the most powerful scenes I’ve ever seen in a film.) What does this mean? It means the ratings skyrocket, and Howard Beale gets a new “prophetic” show of its own where he rants about anything he wants—and this means that soon, companies are under attack after Howard has called them out. And after being talked to (quite forcefully) by an executive, Howard tones down his show.
The ratings drop significantly. The sensationalism that was once with Howard Beale is gone. But luckily, Diana has an idea: another UBS program is “The Mao Tse-Tung Hour”, a show tracking the crimes of a gang led by Communists (I’m dead serious). The men in the gang are then assigned to go to a live taping of Howard’s show and assassinate him on live television. This means that not only does UBS not have to worry about Howard Beale anymore, but also “The Mao Tse-Tung Hour” will have an extraordinary season premiere.
Okay, maybe Chayefsky overemphasizing the satire here a little. But this is his point: the television industry is so obsessed with sensation, with extremity, and with shock, that those types of programming are put before ethics. But why would the industry do this? Because television is so important. Howard even shouts this on his show:
HOWARD: Less than three percent of you people read books! Because less than fifteen percent of you read newspapers! Because the only truth you know is what you get over this tube. Right now, there is a whole, an entire generation that never knew anything that didn't come out of this tube! …Listen to me: Television is not the truth! Television is [an] amusement park! …We're in the boredom-killing business! So if you want the truth, go to God! Go to your gurus! Go to yourselves—because that's the only place you're ever going to find any real truth!
Truth. That’s apparently what people want to find when they watch television. I can believe it. But as a Christian, where should my truth come from? In John 14:6, Jesus tells his disciples, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Later in the book, as Jesus prays for his disciples, he prays, “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.” (17:17) If a Christian is seeking truth, there’s only One in whom we can find it. I don’t need a “tube” to tell me what to think.
However, this film reminds me a lot of a theme in “Good Night, and Good Luck.”, which I blogged about a couple months ago. Both films deal with the television industry, but “Network” puts a negative, satirical feel on the industry. “Good Night, and Good Luck.” seems to be more positive about the possibilities of television. This is what I believe: media, whether it’s television, film, radio, print, or whatever, can be used to glorify God—and even, ironically, reveal truth to those who don’t know God. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:31, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” My prayer for you, the reader, is that you will find truth in Jesus, and that you will also be encouraged to serve Him in everything in order to reveal His truth to others. And whenever you have doubts, think of what executive Arthur Jensen tells Howard Beale when Howard is asked to keep doing his show:
HOWARD: Why me?
ARTHUR: Because you’re on television, dummy.