- October 21, 2019
Paddy Chayefsky was mad as hell at the top executives of American broadcast television. His anger was understandable. He’d written some of the legendary, scripts of TVs golden age.
In less than a decade, he’d watched the network’s corporate clowns turn this revolutionary new medium into the idiot box. Chayefsky also absorbed tons of insider information about the three big TV networks. For a writer of his stature, that was a stockpile of radioactive ammo. Chayefsky dropped his satiric A-bomb in the mid-1970s. “Network” was the name of his weapon of mass-media destruction.
It began as a scorching screenplay — and blew up at the box office. The blast scorched the empty suits behind television’s devolution — and the empty minds of America’s idiot viewers, too. I’d like to say they’ve wised up since then. But I’d be lying. In 1976, “Network” looked like a dark satire. In 2023, it resembles prophecy. Was Chayefsky a satiric soothsayer after all? We posed that question to Richard Hopkins. (He’s directing the theatrical adaptation at Florida Studio Theatre and we thought he would know.) His answers may shock you.
I think it’s because Paddy Chayefsky wrote such great dialogue in his screenplays and teleplays. His command of human speech made his scripts for “Marty,” “Network,” Hospital” and “Altered States” the masterpieces that they are. In these examples, Chayefsky was writing for the screen. He also wrote plays. Whatever the medium, Chayefsky’s words were always the driving force. His use of language was highly theatrical from the get-go.
Exactly. And that’s especially true for “Network.”
Because speech is its organizing principle. Like all of Chayefsky’s screenplays, “Network” has its cinematic moments. But it’s not cinematic by nature. It’s more about the words of characters with opposing philosophies.
Chayefsky’s dialogue has the back-and-forth rhythm of theatrical speech. His scenes are a series of fragments. His locations jump from the studio, to the living room, to the bedroom, to the boardroom. His scenes of back and forth — then come back together. They’re effective against the backdrop of a highly realistic set. But they’d also work in an empty black box theater. The flow of Chayefsky’s language pulls these disjointed vignettes together, not action in physical space.
No, you’re not crazy. Chayefsky was amazingly prophetic. “Network” holds a mirror to the media-saturated world of today.
For me, that’s why Hall’s play works so much better than the film. Chayefsky railed against the crush of media in the 1970s. Television was shaping and misshaping humanity! The omnipresent boob tube is manipulating our minds! That's nothing compared to the crush of contemporary media. Chayefsky never fathomed that we’d all be carrying portable screens in our pockets. Our smartphones are little bitty televisions. They’re two-way televisions. It’s so much like “1984.”
That’s hilarious, Marty. And weirdly terrifying.
Because it’s true. Our smartphones talk to us, watch us, listen to us, interrupt us, give us orders and record our geographic locations.
Yes. They do that, too. And it’s not just our smartphones — that’s true for all the screens of our office computers, home computers, tablets and other digital devices. Media technology is ubiquitous in 2023. We’re surrounded!
Hall could’ve updated his “Network” adaptation to reflect that reality. But he didn’t. He still set the play in the 1970s. The dominant media technology is still TV. Not cable TV. Broadcast television — on clunky, old-fashioned, low-res screens. I think Hall made a smart choice in sticking to that. The ’70s had big, fat analog screens; we have slim, flat digital screens. So what? “Network” isn’t about mass media technology. It’s a satire of the corporate executives who profit from it — and the viewers they manipulate.
Despite the 1970s tech, “Network” is still very 21st century. Fat screen, flat screen. Chayefsky’s mass-media satire applies either way. The FST audience will connect the dots.
I think he’s saying a lot of things. Mad prophets can be dangerous, even when you agree with them. Angry rants can be satisfying, but they get you nowhere. Those are some of his obvious points. But Chayefsky wasn’t always on the nose. “Network” also made a lot of indirect, subtle observations.
First and foremost, Marshall McLuhan was wrong. The medium is not the message. The “message” is just a commodity in network television. The TV set doesn’t create the shows people watch. Creative professionals do — directors, actors, writers, etc.
But it’s not “art for art’s sake.” TV creatives are hired hands. Network executives tell them exactly what to create — on the basis of ratings, which are constantly fluctuating, based on viewer taste … or lack of taste. Who’s consuming media content? That’s important. Who’s controlling that content? That’s the most important question. Not the “message” on the boob tube. The owners and executives who profit from it.
“Network” zeroes in on the network executives at UBS. “Look at them! They’re the bastards in charge of TV.” That’s one thing Chayefsky is saying to us. And also showing us.
Yes, exactly. The old guard executives at UBS had standards. But dinosaurs like Max Schumacher are mostly gone. A new breed has replaced them. They have only one standard — ratings. They try to give the people what they want — or what they think they want.
Well, that depends on the ratings. What’s the audience share? How many eyeballs are watching? That’s the new breed’s definition of success. I’d be shivering in fear to work with them.
They’re amoral and corrupt. But they don’t see themselves that way.
Sure. But Chayefsky also indicts the corruption of the viewers who passively consume the sludge that UBS pumps out.
I love that mental image. But the truth is, viewers can turn off the slime. TV sets had on-off buttons in the 1970s. They still do. Along with all of our other media devices. Nobody’s forcing you to watch the mass-media slime. In fact, if more people stopped watching it, the slime would be canceled.
Yes, the blame for media corruption goes both ways. Media consumers have the power to end that corruption. Stop watching the slime. Poof! Just like magic, it disappears.
But slime can be fun to watch. And viewers are easily seduced. To me, that’s not a left-right thing. It’s a human thing. We’re all so easily sucked into lies, hate, sensationalism, violence and exploitation — and, in recent years, political demagoguery. Media slime comes in many forms. And viewers eat it up. When commercials interrupt the slime, they watch them too. And buy what the ads are selling!
See the play and reach your own conclusions. I’m not trying to duck the question, Marty. “Network” doesn’t tell you want to think. It wants you to think for yourself. To me, that’s the brilliance and the beauty of it.
I’d say it’s because we're so inundated with mass media today. The ubiquitous screens in our pockets, desks, and walls are constantly bombarding us with images. We’re mesmerized and manipulated by those images. We tend to forget about the people behind them. “Network” forces you remember them. In 2023, that’s more relevant than ever.
Absolutely. “Network” is really my kind of show. I love its structure. I love how the puzzle pieces slowly come together — and how that engages the audience’s imagination. “Network” refuses to spoon-feed you answers. You have to be engaged, or you’ll never get it. Pay attention, and all the little nuggets of truth will add up to a greater truth. Leading the audience to that “ah-ha” moment is my definition of fun.
I hope it’ll inspire a great conversation; it’s just that simple. I also hope they’ll ask tough questions. What does “Network” mean? Why is its fictional world so broken? Why is the real world so broken? What can we do in fix it? I don’t claim to have the answers. But if theatergoers ask the questions, I know I’ve done my job.