—“Mad As Hell: The Making of ‘Network’ and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest
Man in Movies,
a book that explores the production of an outlandish film about
the television industry, was just published. The film remains a classic
examination of how broadcasting works, at least at some levels.
To many people, the script was a prescient prediction of what TV became in the
subsequent decades. For production and operations insiders, as well as anyone
who appreciates the creative process, “Mad As Hell” presents fascinating
insights into how a high-profile movie takes shape, including historic
decisions about the look of TV four decades ago.
Here are a few of my
thoughts about the book and the movie, starting with my first exposure to “Network,”
at an invitation-only screening in Washington, just before its release in late
FCC “chairman for life” Richard Wiley actually was
chairman of the commission when “Network” debuted. At a
reception after the screening, I asked him about one of my favorite scenes in
the film, the one in which the TV network president frets about the plan for a “pornographic
news show” as proposed by the aggressive programming vice president, Diana
Christensen, played by Faye Dunaway.
“The FCC’d kill us,” says the top executive.
“The FCC can’t do anything except rap our knuckles,” sneers Robert Duvall’s Frank
Hackett, the factotum from the corporate giant that has acquired the TV
I asked Wiley what the FCC would do in that situation. With his famous smile
and evasive political acumen, the regulator-in-chief grinned, “We’d probably
just rap their knuckles.”
The scene came to mind as I read “Mad As Hell,” by The New York Times
writer Dave Itzkoff. Its release conveniently
coincided with the angry howling about how the FCC should handle the proposed
Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger and the issue of Network Neutrality. After
all, an underlying theme of “Network” is the corporatization of media, along
with anger about media consolidation.
That’s the milieu that inspires Howard Beale (Peter Finch’s Oscar-winning “mad
prophet of the airwaves”) to proclaim the titular mantra, “I’m mad as hell, and
I’m not going to take this anymore!”
The current confluence of media politics and public malaise makes a great
backdrop to revisit the best media movie ever made. As Itzkoff reports, “Network”
is the favorite film (and we assume a formative inspiration) of Stephen
Colbert, Glenn Beck, Keith Olbermann and Bill O’Reilly: Modern incarnations of
Beale on networks that are far less concerned about knuckle raps.
Unfortunately, Itzkoff never bluntly declares that screenwriter/producer Paddy
Chayefsky’s “United Broadcasting System” was a prescient forbearer of Fox and
the many opinionated cable networks that fit into Chayefsky’s concept of what
the “dehumanizing institution” of television would become.
The culmination of Howard Beale’s revelatory arc is the come-to-Jesus harangue
that Arthur Jensen (played by Net Beatty) delivers to him in a darkened
cathedral (played by the New York Public Library boardroom; Chayefsky’s first
choice was the New York Stock Exchange boardroom, but NYSE reneged when its
managers figured out that corporate America would not look good in this scene.
They were right: it doesn’t).
Jensen, as the head of the Communications Corp. of America, chastises Beale for
“meddling with the primal forces of nature” and reminds him of the “corporate
cosmology” that includes a “perfect world” controlled by “one vast and
ecumenical holding company.”
“There is only one holistic system of systems. Dollars!” thunders Jensen. Beale
gets the message.
Conveniently, HBO ran “Network” on the day that Comcast and Time Warner Cable
unveiled their merger. Of course, I have copies of the movie close at hand or
could quickly find it in the cloud, but I DVR’d the show to watch as I read the
book. Seeing the movie, which I highly recommend doing on a regular basis, and
reading Itzkoff’s book are vivid reminders about how today’s media-driven
culture has inserted itself even more substantially into our lives than
Chayefsky, co-producer Howard Gottfried and director Sidney Lumet could have
As an admirer of Chayefsky’s perspicacious writing, I was fascinated by the
backstory that fomented this script. My main question was, “Why did it take 38
years to write this book?” It’s a worthy quick-read, especially for TV industry
people who enjoy the gossip—albeit it 40 years late—and for movie buffs who
appreciate production trivia (Kathy Cronkite, daughter of Walter, plays the
kidnapped heiress-turned-gun-toting terrorist; William Holden was best man at
the wedding of Ronald Reagan and Nancy Davis; Dunaway demanded control over her
While the book is padded with peripheral contemporaneous stories and interviews
with current TV luminaries, “Mad As Hell” adds countless insights about how and
why the movie was made this way. It triggers the desire to see this great movie
As is true of much great literature, your perceptions of a story and
characters change as you see them from different places in your own life. At
that swank Washington screening when I first saw “Network,” I appreciated its
insights on business, love and personal relationships based on what I knew and
understood at that young point in life. Clearly, this movie has looked
different every time I’ve seen it through the decades, when I understood more
about business, work, marriage, world affairs and the machinations within our
multichannel media ecosystem.
It’s the same movie, but it says something different every time. “Mad as Hell” fleshes
out how the grown-ups who made the movie in the mid-1970s brought big truths to
Beale spells it out in one of his harangues about who controls the media: “Woe
is us if it ever falls into the hands of the wrong people.”
After all the hoopla and Oscars for Chayefsky and three actors, “Network” did
not win that year’s Academy Award for Best Picture. That Oscar went to “Rocky,”
the story about a powerhouse from Philadelphia.
Gary Arlen waxes on digital developments from Arlen Communications (www.Arlencom.com).