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Looking Back At NETWORK

Alexander Wallace is as mad as hell, and he's not going to take this anymore!
Like it or not, we live in a world dominated by the media. It is omnipresent. It is in our pockets and in every corner of our homes, and just about anywhere else we choose to go. Having been locked in our homes by a vicious virus, we have become all the more addicted to our screens, and the executives behind them are aware. As much as the opposite may seem to be the case, these executives live and die by our approval (which leads to perfectly reasonable questions of what it is that we approve of, and whether we are right to do so). Such is the fight that all media companies fight with regularity, and it is one that has been made all the more maddening by the proliferation of social media.

But that basic process is nothing new. This is something that we have known for decades, going back to newspapers. But here, we shall discuss television, the ubiquitous idiot box (or ‘gogglebox’ as they say in Britain), the insidious machine melting the minds of the impressionable. More specifically, we’re talking Network, the 1976 film directed by Sidney Lumet and written by the great Paddy Chayefsky.
This is the golden age of network television, a time filled with glitz and glamor - and faltering ratings for Union Broadcasting System in New York. Howard Beale (played astoundingly well by Peter Finch, who would die the year after the film’s release), an anchorman for UBS, is told that he is going to be laid off for budgetary reasons. In his next broadcast, he goes on an unhinged rant rather than doing anything with decorum; he loudly and vociferously declares that he will kill himself the next time he goes on air. Beale is fired, then is rehired to be allowed to depart gracefully; on that departure, he declares that life is ‘bullshit.’

Howard Beale is a character that is relatable to many of us, as we navigate an economy and world order that is dominated by the cruel and the petty, one where the things we do to survive can feel like they have no meaning. He is the alienated modern human who can see through all the nonsense of industrial civilization, and has reached the end of his rope.

But the real hard-hitting, enduring commentary comes after that rant. UBS, needing something, anything, to boost their ratings, strikes what appears to be gold: they give Beale his own show. From this new bully pulpit, Beale goes on unhinged rants that nevertheless end up striking a chord with many viewers. In the most iconic scene of the film, Beale exhorts the viewers to step to their windows and yell out the great line:
"I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!

As relatable as he is, Howard Beale needs help. The way that UBS exploits such a clearly troubled man is a damning indictment of how the media finds those who are in desperate need of healing and then milks them for all the money and attention they can get from it. This is a message that has resonated in the ensuing decades, as social media has made the exploitation of the vulnerable so much more lucrative than it ever has been.

But in counterpoint to the above, I am reminded of Jiddu Krishnamurti’s incisive quote:
“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
The executives at UBS who make Beale a nationwide sensation appear healthier than their new moneymaker, but they also clearly have far fewer moral scruples. They are healthy because they have adjusted well to the madness of broadcast television and how it can make mountains out of molehills and tempests within teapots. They are the taste-makers and the madness-stokers, and the power they have over our brains is nothing less than profound sickness. That is what Network warns us against, and we would be wise to heed its warning.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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