‘Network’, Scorsese, and Making Cinema in an Age of Content

Howard Beale (Peter Finch) having a meltdown on live television in 'Network'. He is sweating, read faced, and is raising his hands, mouth open as if to yell.
United Artists

CW: Suicide mention.

“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore,” cries Howard Beale (Peter Finch), an emotionally disturbed news anchor, in Sidney Lumet’s seminal 1976 film Network, which satirises how broadcast television exploits human feeling to generate a profit as an end in and of itself. The basic premise is as follows: after having been let go from the network, Howard announces that he’s going to commit suicide on live television the next day, causing a massive spike in viewership. The opportunistic head of the programming department Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) sees potential in Howard’s passionate outburst of indignation and repurposes him from an ageing news anchor to a modern prophet; a television evangelist complete with his own prime time show. But when Howard starts preaching about the buying out of the network by a Saudi Arabian conglomerate, urging his audience to take a stand against corporate control of the media they consume, things start to unravel and eventually fall apart. 

So, how does this relate to the current state of cinema, dominated by franchise films and passable remakes trying to cash in on nostalgia? How relevant is Network in an age of streaming services  – most of which are owned by multinational media conglomerates – oversaturated with mediocrity?   And how does the great director Martin Scorsese’s anxieties about the future of cinema as an art form (propagated by his claim that Marvel films are “not cinema”) fit into this narrative?

Although the heyday of network television is long gone, Network’s cynicism still holds true. The conditions under which we choose to consume media have changed drastically (not least because of the pandemic) as broadcast television has been replaced by online streaming platforms. Nevertheless, the main incentives of the entertainment industry remain the same: to generate a profit. Those in charge of producing media capitalise on the sentimentality of their audience, say, in the form of a nostalgia-fuelled shot by shot remake of a beloved childhood movie or of a live-action retelling of an animated fairytale.

Arguably, the most prevalent examples of this phenomenon come from The Walt Disney Company, a multinational media conglomerate, which monopolised a good portion of the film industry when it acquired both Marvel Entertainment and George Lucas’  production company Lucasfilm. To put this into perspective, Disney had a North American box office market share of 38 percent in 2019, by generating 80 percent of the top box office hits of the year.

As such the current situation seems eerily close what Howard Beale sermons against in Network, which eventually leads to him being given a lecture by the network chairman Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty) who astutely tells him: “We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business. The world is a business, Mr. Beale”

Diane (Faye Dunaway), observes from a broadcasting editing booth. She is wearing a sharp beige suit and striped blouse, and has a taut expression.
United Artists

The main takeaway here is that the production of mass media  – in this case television programming – doesn’t serve a purpose beyond making a profit. It doesn’t commit to a concrete ideology nor does it advocate for a certain political agenda. This is perhaps best exemplified by Faye Dunaway’s character the ambitious yet cold Diane Christensen, who produces a docudrama series called “The Mao Tse-Tung Hour” about a group of communist militants. Christensen sees the potential for a hit show in the sensationalist antics of the group but doesn’t actually subscribe to their beliefs. To her it makes no difference whether a program has anti-establishment sentiments or justifies the exploitative practices of capitalism, it’s all the same as long as it’s commercially successful (Another movie that conveys this idea that mass media feeds and thrives on empty sensationalism is Dan Gilroy’s 2014 neo-noir thriller Nightcrawler).

In the same vein, Howard Beale’s rage against the network for firing him is flipped around to benefit the network’s interests. His tirades on the widespread dissatisfaction with life as it is hit a nerve with the general public and he is given an even bigger platform: his own televangelist-esque prime time show. His nightly speeches act as populist rhetoric, which eventually makes the Howard Beale Show the most highly rated program on television. It’s only when he directs his anger – hence his audience – towards an achievable goal that he becomes a threat to the interests of the network, which on all accounts tries to remain apolitical; reaping the benefits of aimless public outrage without actually championing a cause. Howard’s subsequent confrontation with chairman Jensen reveals the ideal world for which he sees the entertainment business striving for, embodied in: “One vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock. All necessities provided, all anxieties tranquillised, all boredom amused.” 

Needless to say, Jensen would’ve been pretty impressed to find out that it would only take 45 years to reach his ideal; in other words, for conglomerate owned streaming services to overtake mass media. From Amazon Prime Video to Netflix streaming services have made mass entertainment synonymous with “content”, a point highly criticised by Martin Scorsese in his essay on “Federico Fellini and the lost magic of cinema”. In his essay, Scorsese takes issue with how algorithm generated streaming platforms narrow down viewers to their choices; treating them as consumers of content rather than active participants in the viewing experience. His fear is that reducing cinema to its lowest common denominator as “content”, threatens the preservation and the appreciation of the art of cinema. “The situation, sadly, is that we now have two separate fields: There’s worldwide audiovisual entertainment, and there’s cinema. They still overlap from time to time, but that’s becoming increasingly rare. And I fear that the financial dominance of one is being used to marginalise and even belittle the existence of the other.”

Arthur Jensen confronts Howard Beale in his darkened office, lit by green desk lamps, highlighting Jensen's authority.
United Artists

The quote above is taken from another one of Scorsese’s op-eds, in which he elaborates on his viral remark that “Marvel movies aren’t cinema”. Given the unprecedented financial success of the Marvel franchise, it’s no surprise that Scorsese caused quite an uproar by speaking against them (even prompting chief executive of the Walt Disney Company, Robert A. Iger to respond). But as he makes point of it in his essay, Scorsese is critical of the domination of franchise films because they lack the risk that comes with making art. In this respect, they resemble glorified theme park rides that take you for a spin and provide a quick yet thrilling escape from the everyday, without actually revealing anything new. There are only so many different variations of a superhero franchise movie and a finite number of themes it can address, in order to meet the demands of the target audience.

Granted, not every movie has to be emotionally profound or perceptive, but equating cinema with the audio-visual entertainment business devalues the artistic integrity of moviemaking. This can also be said for the catalogues of a vast majority of streaming services, oversaturated with passable tv and film meant for instant consumption through binge-watching. Because streaming services have to compete with one another à la network television, their main objective is to get as many people as possible to watch their content, regardless of how well made or acclaimed it is. As such, widespread commercial success is prioritised over merit. A recent example of this would be the renewal of the universally panned Netflix-original series Emily in Paris for a second season. 

Although it’s been almost fifty years since Network’s release, it seems more relevant than ever in the age of conglomerate owned, content-driven streaming platforms. We are at the mercy of algorithms programmed by the same multimedia companies that provide us with entertainment.  And the question remains: how do we preserve the art of cinema in the digital age? How do we prevent it from being reduced to an interchangeable commodity? Although independent movie theatres are in decline – and the pandemic certainly hasn’t helped – it is possible to use the many channels of information available via the internet to access and appreciate cinema, which would otherwise remain obscure.

Curated streaming platforms such as MUBI and the Criterion Channel come to mind. And although controversial, distinguishing cinema from other forms of audiovisual content is essential, in order to preserve its artistic potential. Because moviemaking is – by its very nature – costly, it has always entailed tensions between the financial incentives of the producers and the unique vision of the artists. Nowadays however, the film industry seems to have been completely taken over by the former. With the exception of a selected few independent films backed by big studios’ annual Oscar campaigns, almost all of contemporary mainstream cinema consists of remakes, reboots and sequels. This goes on to show how vital it is that cinema, as its own distinctive art form on par with literature & music, be maintained by those who recognise its value. Sadly they don’t seem to be the ones calling the shots on its very near future.

by Elif T. Erisik

Elif (she/her) is in the process of completing her Bachelor’s degree in Sociology at the Technical University of Berlin. Originally from Istanbul, she misses her two cats dearly when she is away at college. She dreams of moving to New York one day and pursuing writing as a career. She has a soft spot for movie musicals and her favourite films include La La Land, Synecdoche, New York and Frances Ha. Find her on Twitter and Instagram

2 replies »

  1. You nailed it regarding NETWORK’S augury content. I myself feel it prophesied the age of mass media glare better than any time travel portal and you write about our current climate of ‘quantity over quality’ with a firm realism regarding the issue.

    Liked by 1 person

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