Sunday, December 16, 2007

So What's Different?

Last night I watched "Network" again. I remember seeing Paddy Chayefsky's masterpiece in the theater when it first came out in 1975. I thought then that the movie articulated everything wrong with television. Revisiting it 30+ years later, I'm surprised at how relevant it still is.

Most everyone's familiar with Howard Beale's rant "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore," but that's not the part that resonated with me throughout the years. Rather, it was one of Beale's jeremiads where he reveals that TV will tell us whatever we want to hear -- and we take it to be true. (Fox News anyone?)

Here's the bulk of the rant:

Why is it woe to us? Because you people and 62 million other Americans are listening to me right now. Because less than 3% of you people read books. Because less than 15% of you read newspapers. Because the only truth you know is what you get over this tube.

Right now there is a hole -- an entire generation that never knew anything that didn't come out of this tube.

This tube is the gospel; the ultimate revelation. This tube can make and break presidents, Popes, prime ministers... This tube in the most awesome g*ddammed force in the whole g*ddammed world.

Woe is us if it ever falls into the hands of the wrong people.

So you listen to me. Television is not the truth. Television is a goddammed amusement park. Television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats, storytellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, sideshow freaks, lion tamers, and football players.

We're in the boredom-killing business.

So if you want the truth, go to God; go to your gurus; go to yourselves! Because that's the only place you're going to find real truth.

Man, you're never going to get any truth from us. We'll tell you anything you want to hear. We lie like hell. We'll tell you that Kojak always gets the killer, that nobody ever gets cancer in Archie Bunker's house, and no matter how much trouble's the hero's in, don't worry. Just look at your watch. At the end of the hour he's going to win.

We'll tell you any sh*t you want to hear.

We deal in illusions, man. None of it is true. But you people sit there day after day, night after night -- all ages, colors, creeds. We're all you know. You're beginning to believe the illusions we're spinning here. You're beginning to think the tube is reality and that your own lives are unreal.

You do whatever the tube tells you. You dress like the tube, you eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube, you even think like the tube.

This is mass madness!

You maniacs! In God's name, you people are the real thing. We are the illusion.

So turn off your television sets, turn them off now. Turn them off right now and leave them off.
Television's not totally evil, of course -- and neither is the Internet. But as I look at the rise of Facebook, and the increase of online gaming and virtual worlds such as Second Life, I have to wonder.

What if we substituted the word "Internet" for "tube" and "television" in the monologue above. Would it still ring true?

- Ralph


  1. Per your last question, the answer is an emphatic no.

    In 1975, all you had for in-home video entertainment were three commercial television networks, a handful of independents, and a fledgling public network.

    As the years went on, consumers had an awful lot more choice of storytellers to choose from in the boredom-killing business. Television succeeded by monopolizing that business, by giving a massive platform to talented people. That had the effect of killing off local community theater, so that by 1975 all of the theaters in small towns were showing porno or were shuttered. All of a sudden, there was something to measure up against, and people in real life never look as good as they do on the television screen. In a young country such as ours, community-building became less important.

    But, since Network, we've seen the rise of cable. That brought a lot more choice, and the beginnings of fragmentation. The networks began to lose their monopoly in a tremendous way.

    With the Internet, more and more people are reclaiming their lives, and turning to their own communities, which of course continues the trend towards fragmentation.

    The networks have much less power, and are struggling, because there are so many other boredom killing options out there. The difference is, these new options have a lot more interactivity built in. Think of the people playing World of Warcraft, for instance. The guilds build real relationships, which may or may not spill over into real life. Is it a good thing? I'm not in the business of normative prescriptions, so I don't know.

    But, I do know, people feel they're entitled to their say in a way they were not in the past. Read the comments about a show on any television site. Most of them are negative, and demanding. People aren't as passive as they used to be.

    Yes, the networks still have a large audience. But, a sustained writer's strike is another symptom of the decline of the networks. The business model of hundreds of pilots being whittled down to a handful of successful shows is pretty much done.

    What replaces it? I'm not sure, but it's certainly something a lot more diffuse, something with a lot less power to shape the hearts and minds of Americans. I'm a huge fan of the new Battlestar Galactica, for instance, but it has almost no cultural influence despite resonating very clearly with our times.

    I think what replaces it locally is efforts such as yours to transform WJMA. You expect more, and you lobby for it. In 1975, that was not a possibility. Your efforts might not pay off initially, but at least you, as the listener/consumer, have that much more power, because your words do not rely on someone else to vet them.

    It seems people are heeding Howard Beale's commands, and have been for many years. They're using television in moderation.

  2. Coincidentally we just watched Network again this week too. What struck me about it was Chayefsky's screenplay, which, compared to today's screenplays, was amazingly literate. You won't hear vocabulary like that used in a studio movie today -- it can't easily be translated into 10 languages and sold in an international market.

    I agree with Sean that people don't feel stifled today in the same way they did in the 70's, when, for instance, Nixon appealed to the *Silent* majority. On the other hand, I think we could use more explosions of bottled-up rage today. Lord knows there are plenty of offenses to be outraged about.

    And one final thought: Why is Ned Beatty always the best thing in every movie he's in? Five minutes of Beatty is worth 50 minutes of most other actors.

  3. Sean makes many points that I agree with, but I think the question is still worth asking. Network TV has definitely lost its hold on the general public -- but is the same true of the corporations that own them?

    General Electric, for example, owns Universal (music and movies), NBC, CNBC, MSNBC, Sci-Fi, Bravo, Trio, USA and Telemundo. So some of that audience that's moved from NBC to Sci-Fi hasn't really left GE's pervue.

    Viacom, which owns MTV and Nickelodeon, also owns NBC and Paramount Pictures.

    Disney owns ABC, ESPN, has partial ownerships of E!, A&E and Lifetime, and also owns Hollywood and Miramax Studios, as well as ABCFam and the Disney Channel.

    While audiences are fragmenting, a significant part is still being caught by the corporate nets that are being cast wider than they were back in 1975.

    But at the heart of my question was this. According to Beale, in 1975 people eschewed reality for the fantasy world of network TV. In 2007, are people eschewing reality for the virtual world of the Internet?

    I'm thinking specifically of Facebook and MySpace posters whose sole purpose is to accumulate as many "friends" as possible. But are any of those relationships as valuable as someone you spend time with?

    I'm also thinking about world like Second Life, which now has a real-world economy, and a growing number of people how prefer to live there rather than here. I recently ran across a story about church services in Second Life, and how the attendees thought it more meaningful than going to an actual church.

    Again, I'm not saying the Internet is evil -- I'm just asking if some of us haven't substituted one kind of fantasy world for another.

    - Ralph

  4. Elizabeth M. is right. This is an amazingly literate screenplay (they actually used the word "jeremiad," which I felt compelled to define).

    I think a lot of that bottled-up anger is being unleashed -- but its only happening online. And I think that's part of the problem.

    Take politics, for example. If you look at Digg's aggregator ( you get a much different picture of candidates' popularity, support and what the issues -- both addressed and unaddressed -- should be, as compared to mainstream media.

    But because its so easy to ignore the online community, only the barest hint of what people are speaking out about make it into the nightly news.

    And unfortunately, most of the folks I know say that they get their news from a cable news channel rather than the network -- and think they're getting more substantial news coverage.

    When I tell them I've set the BBC International edition as my homepage and regularly check news agencies outside the US they look at me with total non-comprehension.

    - Ralph