In Los Angeles, network executives watching a screening of the movie were on the edge of their seats, almost clawing at the armrests with indignation. In New York City, the film was a three-martini lunch topic along Sixth Avenue "Network Row"and NBC angrily barred Director Sidney Lumet from a screening of one of its own TV movies. "It's a piece of crap," huffed an NBC vice president. "It had nothing to do with our business." ABC's Barbara Walters was more delicate. She said that while the movie was entertaining, she was afraid audiences would think the movie was not satire but the truth. Which is exactly what many audiences did think about Paddy Chayefsky's Network as they stamped their feet, howled and hooted at the most controversial movie of 1976.
Sensitive Nerve. Nowhere was the reaction stronger than among those who actually work in TV's cotton fields. "I heard the movie was supposed to be a satire on the television business," deadpans George Schlatter, who originated Laugh In, one of the most innovative shows of the '60s. "But to me it was almost a documentary." Says Novelist Gore Vidal, a TV playwright in the '50s: "I've heard every line from that film in real life." Norman Lear, the comedy pioneer of the '70s, declares categorically that Network is "a brilliant film."
Judging from the reactions of both those who make TV and those who watch it, Network, which opens in 15 cities on Dec. 17, has drilled into a sensitive national nerve. Overlong and preachy, exaggerated even within the bounds of satire, the movie nonetheless has the power of a frightening revelation (TIME, Nov. 29). Like the Frank Capra films of the '30s and '40s (particularly Meet John Doe), it is half entertainment and half message, a populist plea for the individual against inhuman institutions. But unlike the movies of those optimistic days, there is no happy ending.
The movie's message is simple enough: Howard Beale (Peter Finch), the once popular anchorman of a national newscast, falls victim to the twin evils of booze and declining ratings, and Max Schumacher (William Holden), the head of UBS News, tells him he has to go. Suffering a momentary nervous breakdown, Beale goes on air to announce that in a week's time he will shoot himself on-camera. He has, he says, run out of the "bullshit" that kept him going.
Schumacher wants to yank Beale off the air, but Diana Christenson (Faye Dunaway), the network's head of programming, senses enough viewer interest in a nutty anchorman to boost the ailing network into Nielsen heaven. The news department becomes part of Christenson's entertainment empire, and, as the "mad prophet" of the air waves, Beale gains 60% of the audience and puts the double-whammy on such stolid, sane types as Walter Cronkite and John Chancellor. "Howard Beale is processed instant God," Christenson gushes, "and right now it looks like he may just go over bigger than Mary Tyler Moore."