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The Soothsayer: How Paddy Chayefsky’s “Network” Accidentally Predicted The Mad (As Hell) Future Of Cable News

Dave Itzkoff talks about uncovering the life of mad- and prescient-as-hell writer Paddy Chayefsky.

The Soothsayer: How Paddy Chayefsky’s “Network” Accidentally Predicted The Mad (As Hell) Future Of Cable News
[Images courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures Archives]

“I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel’s worth, banks are going bust . . . We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our teevees while some local newscaster tells us that today we had 15 homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be. . . . We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, ‘Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV, and my steel-belted radials and I won’t say anything. Just leave us alone.’ Well, I’m not gonna leave you alone . . . 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 going to take this anymore!”

Thus was the legendary call to arms by Howard Beale, the fictitious anchorman at wits end in Sidney Lumet’s 1976 feature film Network. The scene was performed to perfection by Peter Finch, from a remarkably prescient, if alarmist, screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky. Chayefsky’s script also took home an Oscar the same year, as did Finch, and his co-stars Faye Dunaway and Beatrice Straight. Lumet, co-stars William Holden and Ned Beatty, cinematographer Owen Roizman, and the film itself were also nominated but didn’t bring home Oscars. Regardless, the film was a critical and box office smash in the post-Watergate, and post-All The President’s Men political climate of Bicentennial America.

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Plausible, If Not Probable

A testament to just how prophetic Chayefsky’s script was is that many of the characters and incidents depicted within its tense and provocative 121 minutes could be found, in some form or another, on any of today’s myriad cable channels. The goings on in Chayefsky’s fictional UBS television newsroom, a roman a clef for the big three at the time (ABC, NBC, and CBS) were considered far-fetched and outrageous satire when the film was released. And yet, much of it, such as Beale inciting his viewing audience to get angry, a reality series about a gang of radical activists doing bank jobs for ratings, a “Vox Populi” computer that analyzes audience reactions to news stories, and “Sybil: The Soothsayer,” a clairvoyant genie forecasting the news events of tomorrow–seem plausible, if not probable, today.

The Medium Is The Message

Marshall McLuhan famously observed that “the medium is the message,” yet it was via the medium of film that Chayefsky chose to make his commentary on television, and specifically on what he saw as the decline of network television news as it devolved into infotainment. While the film alienated many in the television news industry, some of whom Chayefsky had worked with in his early days a writer of television dramas, it also divided film critics. Pauline Kael derided Network in the New Yorker as a mish-mash of inchoate ranting, while on the other hand, The New York Times‘ Vincent Canby declared it a “brilliantly, cruelly funny” film that confirmed Chayefsky’s position as “a major new American satirist.”

And as the present day Times writer Dave Itzkoff argues in his new book, Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies, the film also transformed the way we think about television and the way we view corporate and media power.

Dave ItzkoffPhoto by Chad Batka

Yet, while he concludes that Network was ultimately just a movie, Itzkoff’s entertaining and highly detailed book also make the case that the movie accomplished a “remarkable and even radical” feat. It used the financial means of the Hollywood motion picture industry to criticize not only a rival medium but the entire field of mass communication and most significantly what he terms “the vast system of corporations nested within corporations that contained it, and a distinctly American way of life that these institutions dictated.”

The Accidental Prophet

But for all of Network’s apparent prescience, Itzkoff insists that Chayefsky (who died from cancer in 1981) was merely an “accidental prophet.”

“For all the irascible, after-the-fact certainty he professed about Network and the specter of television’s future that it predicted,” Itzkoff writes in the book, “his ambitions in creating it were grander and more wide-reaching. He sought to do more than simply speculate on the fortunes of a medium he alternately regarded as past its prime and eternal, and whose true capacity for decadence would not come into view for many years after his death, in forms that even a wit as uncompromising as his had only suggested as jokes.”

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Along the way Itzkoff also consults many of the surviving key players in getting Network to the screen (Finch, Holden, and Lumet are also deceased), and elicits commentary from contemporary fans of the film.

Mad As Hell Book Cover

Mad As Hell

And yet, it was a Mad Magazine parody of Network that first caught the eye of young Dave Itzkoff, who was only a newborn the year the film came out.

“I was too young to see it in it’s original theatrical release,” Itzkoff admits over the phone from New York, “but Mad had parodied it about a year later and that parody got reprinted in any number of special editions and collections that they put out. What stuck out for me was this running joke that the language of Network was so obscene that everything had to be bleeped out. So as a little kid, I just thought, ‘Oh man I gotta find out what those words are that even Mad magazine can’t print.’ But later, in college, even 20 or 25 years after the fact, it looked so different from other movies because there were a lot of long monologues. And the tone was so, Chayefsky would hate me for calling it this, but the tone is just so cynical; it has one of the darkest endings you can imagine. There was no impetus to try to find a happy resolution to the story of Howard Beale.”

The impetus for Itzkoff’s book came to him three years ago, when the New York Public Library told him about their recent acquisition of Paddy Chayefsky’s rich archive of notes, screenplays, memos, and other random papers, much of it handwritten or typed by Chayefsky himself. When they asked Itzkoff if he thought there was a New York Times story there, he agreed and his brief feature was published in the Times in May of 2011.

“I had a great time writing that article,” says Itzkoff “but that was only 2,000 words long so you could really only touch the surface of what’s in there. But it was also very encouraging, because even at the time, we were able to speak to Sorkin and to Colbert and there was this sense not only that there was a richness of material in Chayefsky’s papers, but that there was also this world out there that really wanted the opportunity to celebrate the movie, and were happy to talk about it in all these different ways.”


A Sea Of Papers

To research Mad As Hell, Itzkoff found himself immersed in a sea of papers. As daunted as he was, he admits that he was excited to be entrusted with sharing the controversial screenwriter’s heretofore-untold story with the world.

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“There’s literally hundreds of boxes worth of this stuff,” says Itzkoff. “In the course of writing the book, I went back and looked at not only everything that had to do with Network but all the years that followed and many of the years that preceded. They’ve got everything including his birth certificate, his discharge papers from the army, you could really trace his entire life, it was so thorough. We forget what it was like to live in a world was pen and paper, and typewriters, and nothing else. Chayefsky was a little more meticulous than others because he’d had these bad tax experiences and lived in a perpetual fear of either being audited or, as happened with Altered States, fearful of getting sued over something creative and then having to document, atom by atom, how he came up with certain ideas. So he just kept everything, so I was very lucky that so much of this stuff survived.”

The Boredom-Killing Machine

Chayefsky was notorious for having a sharp wit, with an equally short fuse, and an inability to suffer fools. And he frequently found fools in every corner of the television industry, leading some to believe that Howard Beale’s ranting monologues about the medium were just Chayefsky’s way of biting the hand that used to feed him. So was Network a veiled a memoir of his years in what Beale calls the “boredom killing machine” of television? Itzkoff dismisses most revenge theories as the stuff of urban myth.

“If you really look at the process that he went through–this idea [for Network] was gestating in his mind for so long, and it went through so many iterations, that it’s unfairly dismissive to just treat it as a kind of act of revenge.


Meddling With The Primal Forces Of Nature

Often overlooked, he says, is a far more threatening vision in Network, one that resonates as much in today’s discussions of “net neutrality” as it did back in 1976; the corporate control of news media. In one of the most prescient scenes in the film, Ned Beatty, as corporate overlord Arthur Jensen, delivers a sermon of his own, warning Beale not to meddle with what he calls the “primal forces of nature” which constitute the corporate cosmology. Jensen tells Beale that he doesn’t really care what he says on his airwaves, as long as it doesn’t interfere with his bottom line. Itzkoff adds the film also asks how much free speech a news division would really be allowed when a conglomerate that also produces weapons owns them or fighter planes.

Original Network Movie Poster

“That’s so especially true of the contemporary media environment,” says Itzkoff, “where you have so much more synergy and all these much more incestuous relationships among larger corporations that now own all these media outlets. These were things that really plagued Chayefsky’s consciousness when he was writing the script, and you can see when you look at his notes and they look like these somewhat insane ravings, and yet we know from our contemporary perspective that these kinds of fears are going to come to pass.”

The Soothsayer

Without pointing to any one specific network or cable news outlet, Itzkoff says that it’s not hard to survey the landscape of news infotainment and find evidence of Chayefsky’s prophecy. He noted that when the Malaysian Airlines jet first went missing, Headline News even brought in a real life psychic to speculate on its whereabouts, echoing the Sybil the Soothsayer segment on the Howard Beale Show.

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“So on that level,” laughs Itzkoff, “how can you not say that cable news is the fulfillment of Chayefsky’s prophecies?”

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About the author

Paul Myers is a Toronto, Canada-born, Berkeley, California-based journalist, musician and songwriter, and the author of three music biographies including A Wizard A True Star: Todd Rundgren In The Studio (Jawbone Press, 2010). He is also one-half of San Francisco music duo, The Paul & John.

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