From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Network is a 1976 New Hollywood drama film about a fictional television network, Union Broadcasting System (UBS), and its struggle with poor ratings. It was written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet, and stars Faye Dunaway.
Network has continued to receive recognition, decades after its initial release. In 2000, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
The story opens with long-time "UBS Evening News" anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) being fired because of the show's low ratings. He has two more weeks on the air, but the following night, Beale announces on live television that he will commit suicide during an upcoming live broadcast.
UBS immediately fires him after this incident, but they let him back on the air, ostensibly for a dignified farewell, with persuasion from Beale's producer and best friend, Max Schumacher (William Holden), the network's old guard news editor. Beale promises that he will apologize for his outburst, but instead rants about how life is "bullshit." While there are serious repercussions, the program's ratings skyrocket and, much to Schumacher's dismay, the upper echelons of UBS decide to exploit Beale's antics rather than pulling him off the air.
In one impassioned diatribe, Beale galvanizes the nation with his rant, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" and persuades Americans to shout out their windows during a spectacular lightning storm. Soon Beale is hosting a new program called The Howard Beale Show, top-billed as a "mad prophet of the airways." Ultimately, the show becomes the highest rated (Duvall's character calls it "a big fat, ... big-titted hit!") program on television, and Beale finds new celebrity preaching his angry message in front of a live audience that, on cue, repeats the Beale's marketed catchphrase en masse. His new set is lit by blue spotlights and an enormous stained-glass window, supplemented with segments featuring astrology, gossip, opinion polls, and yellow journalism.
Parallel to the story of Beale is the tale of the rise within UBS of Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway). Beginning as a producer of entertainment programming, Diana acquires footage of terrorists robbing banks for a new television series, charms other executives, and ends up controlling a merged news and entertainment division. To advance this, Christensen has an affair with the long-married Schumacher, but remains obsessed with the success of the network, even in bed.
Upon discovering that the conglomerate that owns UBS will be bought out by an even larger Saudi Arabian conglomerate, Beale launches an on-screen tirade against the two corporations, encouraging the audience to telegram the White House with the message, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this any more" in the hopes of stopping the merger. Beale is then taken to meet with Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty), chairman of the company which owns UBS, who explicates his own "corporate cosmology" to the now nearly delusional Beale. Jensen delivers a lecture - almost a sermon - beginning by declaring to Beale, "You have meddled in the primal forces of nature" before describing the interrelatedness of the participants in the international economy, and the illusory nature of nationality distinctions. Jensen ultimately persuades Beale to abandon his populist messages. However, audiences find his new views on the dehumanization of society to be depressing, and ratings begin to slide.
Although Beale's ratings plummet, the chairman will not allow executives to fire Beale as he spreads the new gospel. Obsessed as ever with UBS' ratings, Christensen arranges for Beale's on-air murder by a group of urban terrorists who now have their own UBS show, "The Mao-Tse Tung Hour," a dynamite addition to the new fall line-up. This mirrors a drunken and sardonic conversation between Beale and Schumacher at the start of the film, that they should have a show featuring suicides and assassinations.