In TV news business, life eerily imitates 'Network'

June 22, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Suppose you woke up and you were inside a movie?

If the movie were "E.T" or something equally beloved, that might not be too bad, assuming you got to be a good guy.

But suppose the movie was "Network," Paddy Chayefsky's corrosive 1976 satire on big media and its banalizing effects on the culture that spawned it?

You'd be mad as hell. But you'd take it anyway . . . because you'd have no choice.

It's not only a movie. It's America in the '90s.

Indeed, no film in the post-war era has been so weirdly prescient as the great, biting and ultimately tragic "Network."

It's not merely that in an eerie way when anchorman Howard Beal and news director Max Schumacher (Peter Finch and William Holden) joke about putting an actual suicide (Howard's) on TV and watching the ratings skyrocket, they were predicting the emergence of NBC's "I Witness" video, in which actual tapes of death scenes are played, right on the TV.

Chayefsky got that right, all right -- the way in which, as television and the movies jostle for placement in the marketplace, they nudge each other toward more outrageousness, until at last watching people die from the comfort of your sofa seems positively tame.

But he got something larger as well. He understood that news was becoming too important for journalists. He predicted -- accurately -- a cultural condition in which the news business seems more and more to have been gobbled up by the entertainment business, until the distinction between them has all but vanished.

A night or so ago, I was watching NBC's "Dateline," with Jane Pauley and Stone Phillips. This is a news show, right? Pauley, Phillips, they're reporters, right?

Wrong. What transpired was a souffle of a piffle of a waffle of a whiff of a "story" that purported to show how composer Michael Kamen scored "Lethal Weapon 3." If the Warner Bros. publicity department had produced it, it couldn't have been softer, more cooperative, more lipsmackingly incestuous. It wasn't a report, it was a massage, dedicated to do one thing -- to sell tickets to the movie. It was a corporate co-operation initiative between General Electric, which owns NBC, and Time Warner, which owns Warner Bros.

What is so dispiriting is not merely that NBC news sold out, but for how little, and what despair it speaks of. They didn't even get an interview with Mel Gibson!

In the Chayefsky version, a predatory programmer (played with ice in her veins by Faye Dunaway) sees the news division not as the sacrosanct icon of integrity and corporate prestige it had been in years past, but as a vast resource out of which to spin off series programming. Her bolt of inspiration is to build a grotesque hit out of anchorman Beale's obvious nervous collapse, using it as the centerpiece for a "news show" that featured other forms of prognostication as well.

At the same time, she's conspiring with an ultra-left guerrilla group to actually film their terrorist strikes, to form the basis of another TV series. We may not quite be there yet, but the whole reality-TV movement is queasily similar. On "Cops" and "American Detective" and "Rescue 911," we step beyond the membrane of fiction into the authentic and have a safe window on the grubby squalor of true-life law enforcement; meanwhile the cops themselves start getting fancy haircuts and mug for the camera in the middle of busts. They become "stars" themselves.

But the most penetrating accuracy in "Network" is its sense of New Media overtaking Old Media, much commented upon in the Old Media of late. Chayefsky himself had lived through such a sea-change: He'd been one of the small group of brilliant dramatists who'd presided over the "golden age of television," when live, smart, vivid drama pulsed out of the studios of New York in the '50s. But he watched, presumably with horror, as the long-form live drama was eclipsed and ultimately destroyed by filmed series TV, that tide of banality and canned laugh tracks that became the average night of American television

He projected that same changing of order on news culture, acutely predicting what appears to be happening before our very eyes. We live in an age where "news" -- that old professionally observed, recorded, edited and interpreted litany of events -- has proved untenable to its subjects and uninteresting to its receptors. Instead, almost by codicil, they have moved beyond its irrelevance into the warmer waters of the New Media, as represented by talk show culture. Presidential candidate Bill Clinton shows up on MTV and the "Arsenio Hall Show," Ross Perot is big on "Larry King Live" (he starts his campaign with Larry King!) and phone-in segments of the "Today Show" (which abrogates its Old Media responsibility and just lets him blather on), all so that they won't be harassed and buffeted and confused by reporters in suits who ask questions and require checkable facts.

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