In 1976, Sidney Lumet directed a film penned by Paddy Chayefsky entitled “Network.” The film was both a critical and financial success, earning four Academy Awards and a positive box office return. The film centers around a suicidal anchor who experiences a rapid rise and fall in popularity, all based on fluctuating ratings.
Although the story is framed as an overstated satire, the film seems to have accurately predicted the course of television news since its release. We now live in an age where news divisions have become news networks and where ideals like honesty and integrity have been trumped by the need for viewership and advertising. The changes have been so dramatic that it’s hard to believe a once overblown caricature has become an accurate depiction of a grim reality.
In the first decades after television’s inception (1940s-1960s), the news was a special section of programming run by larger networks. News programs, like today’s primetime programming, would run on a daily or weekly basis at scheduled times. The news was delivered by anchors who quickly became well known “guests” in the houses of Americans from coast to coast. Famous newsmen like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite are still remembered for their aura of honest and unbiased reporting that characterized their broadcasts.
The determining factor is that these strongly revered anchors and the news divisions they worked with were intent on delivering news with accuracy and urgency. Pieces that were perceived as sensational existed in order to accurately represent the pressing nature of the story.
News programming was focused on the importance of knowledge and on upholding the tacit belief that the American people are entitled to be socially and politically informed.
In Lumet’s film, the plot is catalyzed by a character who progresses from producing entertainment programming to news programming. When she takes the reigns of the news division and begins to run it like an entertainment division, things turn into a complete circus.
As scary as it seems, what transpires in the film is not entirely different from the transition that took place in real life. As television networks became increasingly dependent on advertisers for funding, ratings too, became increasingly important. If advertisers saw that news programming wasn’t pulling numbers as well as entertainment programming, they would seek to pull their ads from their respected time slots.
Rather than fighting for the defense of news programming, networks reacted by making efforts to draw more viewers to the news, thus raising ratings and attracting advertisers.
Now, in the wake of this transition, news programming has blossomed into an entire industry. Basic cable packages include a multitude of news networks, all with their own range of programming and advertisers competing to reach a maximum number of viewers. While devoting 24 hours of programming to public information seems like a great idea, the truth is that the consumers lose because of a massive drop in quality.
Television news is no longer about the integrity of an agreement, but rather the lucrative importance of consumer culture. News anchors have devolved from journalists into carefully calculated presenters of information, who are sculpted and coached into being performers.
These performers lack the investment that news anchors once had because they are chosen with the singular goal of reaching viewers that advertisers want to engage. Basic news stories are sensationalized to increase viewership and frivolous material is paraded as breaking news in order to meet the demands of a round-the-clock audience.
The most dangerous effect of this new regime is that it influences consumers to think that they are winning. People relish in the comfort of being “constantly informed,” but have given up on the importance of being “properly informed.” The only way that we will see a change in the trajectory of television news is if we demonstrate a reinvigorated demand for quality.
We need to point out the mendacities of news programming and show that we are interested in being informed with integrity and not just dragged along from commercial to commercial.
If the film “Network” is a satirical joke, then modern consumers are the punch line. The only problem is that no one should be laughing.
Robert Weisblatt is a College junior from Belle Mead, N.J.