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In the age of Facebook, Broadway’s Network matters more than ever

In 2018, Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 story about the folly of TV news is best read as a parable about social media platforms and the tech companies behind them.

In the age of Facebook, Broadway’s Network matters more than ever
Bryan Cranston and the cast of Network [Photo: Jan Versweyveld]

It’s hard to say anything new about the prophetic power of the movie Network. Decades before the advent of Fox News, Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 classic famously foretold the coming age of infotainment, the inevitability of media consolidation, and the lost promise of television as a tool to educate and edify. Most notably, though, it predicted that most curious of beasts—American rage—and how TV audiences would reliably gravitate toward programming that reflects our collective anger.

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Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you probably know the famous rant by fictional newscaster Howard Beale, who, in the throes of an on-air breakdown, convinces his millions of viewers to open their windows and scream, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.” Few pieces of movie dialogue have proved so durable over the decades. Even today, we can relate. Especially today.

Bryan Cranston and the cast of Network [Photo: Jan Versweyveld]
But watching the new stage adaptation of Network, which opened last week at Broadway’s Belasco Theatre, it occurred to me that the famous “mad as hell” speech is not Beale’s most relevant in our current age. That comes later in the story, after the UBS television network has revamped his nightly news show, transforming it into a circus-like spectacle that would make Sean Hannity or Glenn Beck proud. During one of his very Fox News-like rants, Beale (played by a mesmerizing Bryan Cranston) crystalizes the power of mass media and the immense responsibility that goes with it. He also underscores the real reason why Network matters now:

There is a whole and entire generation right now who never knew anything that didn’t come out of this tube. This tube is gospel. This tube is the ultimate revelation. This tube can make or break presidents, popes, and prime ministers. This tube is the most awesome goddamn force in the whole godless world. And woe is us if it ever falls into the hands of the wrong people.

Swap out the words “this tube” for “social media” and it becomes clear. In 2018, Network is best seen as a parable about Facebook. If the last two years of Facebook-related scandals, data breaches, Russian trolls, and gross executive mismanagement have taught us anything, it’s that the implications of Beale’s warning are pretty immediate.

Tatiana Maslany (left), Julian Elijah Martinez (right), and the cast of Network [Photo: Jan Versweyveld]
Let’s start by looking at revelations only last month that Facebook’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg, directed her staff to research billionaire George Soros after he publicly criticized the company. Or consider that CEO Mark Zuckerberg reportedly knew about Russian attempts to influence the 2016 election much earlier than he let on. To echo Beale’s premonition, Facebook has fallen into the hands of the wrong people. And woe is us.

Of course, broadcast TV was the dominant medium in 1976, and the “wrong people” Chayefsky had in mind were the more traditional gray-haired boardroom moguls of that time period, not Silicon Valley brogrammers, Russian troll farms, meme creators, data miners, or what have you. But the story’s larger point about what happens when powerful media networks fall into the hands of a few mega-corporations has never been more pressing than right now, particularly when you consider that the lifeblood of those networks hasn’t changed since the 1970s. Then, like now, advertising ran the show, and when two companies—Facebook and Google—control almost 60% of the market share in the digital advertising space, it’s hard not to see a problem. Chayefsky certainly would have.

Tony Goldwyn (left) and Bryan Cranston [Photo: Jan Versweyveld]
In fact, the unstoppable force of corporate consolidation is one of the most salient themes in Network. When Beale learns that UBS’s parent company, CCA, is about to be bought by a larger corporation, or rather a consortium of banks and insurance companies acquiring CCA for mysterious investors in Saudi Arabia, he naturally takes to the airwaves to blast the deal as un-American. (His argument is especially convincing at a time when Silicon Valley’s most powerful companies are grappling with their own dependence on Saudi money.) Afterwards, Beale is confronted by CCA’s chairman, Arthur Jensen, who reminds him that, well, “America” doesn’t really exist anymore. “There is only IBM and AT&T and Ford and General Electric, Union Carbide, Exxon,” Jensen says. “Those are the nations of the world today.”

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If that was true in 1976, what does that say about Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon today?

New network, same dilemma

In an interview a few weeks ago, I asked Network’s co-producer David Binder why he wanted to bring this story to Broadway now, but he didn’t go off on a diatribe about how its themes still resonate. Instead, he cited the thrill of getting to work with Ivo van Hove, the show’s director, and after seeing Network this weekend, I can understand why. It’s a multimedia hybrid that blends live stage and video into a frenetically paced invasion of the senses. The centerpiece of the set is a giant screen, rarely blank, that serves the dual purpose of advancing the story and grounding us in the era. If it’s not showing closeups of the actors in real time, it is flashing montages of test patterns, news footage, and silly TV commercials from the 1970s.

Bryan Cranston (left) and Tony Goldwyn (right) and the cast of Network [Photo: Jan Versweyveld]
The result can sometimes be disorienting. Do you look at the actors on stage or concentrate on that Burger King ad in the background? But you soon realize it’s this way for a reason. This is a play that challenges you to think about where you put your attention, which in itself becomes a metaphor for the advertising-driven media world we live in. Attention is a resource, a currency, and the trade-off we as a society made along time ago is that we are willing to sacrifice it for “free” shows on TV, services online, and apps on our phones.

And so now we must pay attention, or we will pay with our attention.

Network

The preciousness of attention is a point that Network makes rather well. The other is that we are all victims, in a way, of the media hardware we grow up with. In 1976, TV had been a staple of American living rooms for just over two decades, and a generation weaned on the tube was just beginning to exert its influence. Network personifies this point in Diana Christensen (Tatiana Maslany), the ambitious young programming executive who first sees Beale’s populist appeal and orchestrates a plan to exploit it for ratings. Diana is “the TV generation,” and to her much older lover, Max (Tony Goldwyn), she is seen as detached, unable to forge real human connections.

If those traits sound familiar, it’s because the same complaints are frequently lobbed at today’s younger millennials and gen-Z—sure, the first generation to grow up with smartphones know how to make an Instagram post go viral, but what about their people skills? Or so the Olds like to wonder.

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In the end, Broadway’s Network is dutifully faithful to the source material, with many of Chayefsky’s scenes and monologues kept entirely intact by playwright Lee Hall, who adapted it. Cranston won an Olivier Award for the role of Beale last year when it was staged at London’s National Theatre, and he’s likely to be a contender during Tonys season, turning in a downright Shakespearian performance.

From a theater-geek standpoint, I’d say see Network for that reason alone, but it would also be nice if the show inspired audiences, particularly younger ones, to rediscover this relevant cautionary tale, and maybe even heed its warnings before the promise of the smartphone era spirals down the same tube as television. Hell, it probably already has, but see the show anyway.

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About the author

Christopher Zara is a news editor for Fast Company and obsessed with media, technology, business, culture, and theater. Before coming to FastCo News, he was a deputy editor at International Business Times, a theater critic for Newsweek, and managing editor of Show Business magazine

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