In the opening shot we see four news anchors. The narrator’s speech tells us that the anchor’s job is network share. Howard Beale’s share has dropped too low, and he is fired with two weeks notice. The narrator is cold and factual. With Chayefsky’s words and Lumet’s direction the opening sets the tone of the cold and ruthless world of network television that we enter. Beale tells Max Schumacher who fired him that he is going to blow his brains out on national television. Schumacher responds by stating that it would get a fifty share, and as we move behind the scenes of the newsroom we see that no one is paying attention to Beale, just getting through the work day. So, when no one in the control room pays any attention to Beale saying on national television that he is going to blow his brains out on live tv we understand thematically that no one is watching Beale to begin this story, and we will move towards everyone watching him at the end of it. This opening also speaks thematically to the fact that if no one is watching, you don’t exist in this world of capitalism and winning audience shares. It is not about the people, it’s about the ratings. Once someone finally alerts the control room to Beale’s suicide pronouncement they yank him out of his anchor seat, a chair that he has occupied for fifteen years at UBS, and he will not leave quietly which we see in the shot of Beale grabbing onto the desk as five men try to remove him.
CCA and UBS
CCA is a corporation that has taken over the UBS network. After Beale’s suicide announcement on live tv Frank Hackett and his CCA team go on damage control, and we learn that Hackett is after Schumacher’s news division as it loses $32 million annually. From this brief encounter we learn that news doesn’t make money and that it is under attack in order that it can become profitable, and Lumet connects this idea in introducing Diana Christensen (Head of Scripted Television) who wants to use real footage of an armed robbery on the network. In one scene, we are able to grasp that Christensen is after ratings and will do whatever it takes to be #1. Thus, opening up a window into the morality of the decisions made by a network on what they air. Christensen sums up this idea by saying, “the American people want someone to articulate their rage for them.” This is a razor’s edge, articulating the rage of the American people is on one side, and inciting a riot is on the other, but right down the middle lies ratings, network audience share and profits.
Hackett then announces that the news division will no longer be independent, it is now accountable to network. This scenes follows Christensen working to form new content for scripted television, and by placing these scenes next to each other Lumet shows us what Hackett has done. He has out scripted television and the news in the same category, and is demanding the be held accountable and make money. So, then the news is now a vehicle for ratings, not the truth. And when Beale goes on again the next night and begins to tell his truth the corporation (CCA) fires him and Schumacher. This leaves an opening for Christensen who wants to take over the news program and produce it like a weekly series. She does this because she knows that the ratings will be through the roof, and she convinces Frank Hackett and Max Schumacher (who’s been asked to stay) to allow her to develop the news program.
DEVELOPING THE NEWS
Diana and Max go to dinner after she pitches him to let her develop his news show. They begin an affair that shouldn’t take place, he’s married, she’s with someone. Lumet shows us that the news and the ratings shouldn’t be mixed together and their relationship has become the conduit for this issue within the story. Max decides to take Howard off the air because he sees he’s making a disgrace of himself and is potentially having a mental breakdown. Max cares for his friend, but Howard will not leave quietly, and the network brass fire Max and replace him with Diana in order that Beale stays on air, and they keep their ratings. The brutal nature of the business within network television has shown its teeth. The theme is that they do not care about the health of the person, what is most important is the size of the audience watching because healthy people don’t make money.
I’M AS MAD AS HELL AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE
Howard is having what appears to be a mental breakdown on national television once again, but there is a seed of truth in what he is saying and that seed is planted in the voices of all the people that are watching his broadcast who now scream out of the windows of their home, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” What Paddy Chayefsky and Lumet create here is a social truth: people are angry. Angry about Vietnam, Watergate, inflation, depression, and now they have someone leading the charge in Howard Beale. The audience now believes they have a voice...but do they? Or are they being spoon-fed the exactly what the network wants them to eat?
Diana is now producing her version of the news, and Howard Beale is her prophet bringing radical truth and most importantly, ratings. She has welcomed an audience into the studio during the live news broadcast, and Lumet has created a show that looks more like a game-show rather than a serious broadcast. Along with this new format, Diana has also invited Laureen Hobbs, a leader of a Communist group, to get her real footage of terrorist acts that she can use for her new series. Diana is working to build UBS into a ratings giant, to defeat every other network. And as she is doing this, a disease begins to pick off the people who have a sliver of giving a damn about people. George Ruddy dies of a heart attack, Max Schumacher sleeps with and falls in love with Diana, which ends his marriage of twenty-five years. Max is now in bed with the enemy. Once again Lumet follows up Max’s downfall with a matching thematic scene where Laureen Hobbs is working through the contract for her upcoming UBS show with talent agents, entertainment lawyers, and the Great Ahmed Kahn, the leader of the terrorist group that will create the footage of terror attacks happening and give them to Hobbs to air on her show. This scene stands out and shows us the complicit nature of the entertainment industry fueling the fire for ultra-progressive movements to perpetrate heinous acts, all in the name of ratings. Lumet sets the scene in Ahmed Kahn’s house which is falling apart, the walls are literally falling down, and only a single hanging bulb lighting the room, and after Kahn fires a gun to stop an argument, everyone goes back to business as usual. There is nothing normal about what his happening here and Lumet’s genius is setting the camera in a place where the picture works on the audience, allows us to experience what is happening, asks us to see what is taking place and for us to decide what the hell is going on here.
As this wacky scene is taking place, Diana is being celebrated at a UBS network dinner in Los Angeles for her work on The Howard Beale Show because the network now has a chance of being number one in the ratings. As they cheer her on, like a group of raving lunatics, Howard has revealed on his show that CCA is being bought by the Western World Funding Company, a conglomerate of banks fronting for Arabs. Howard says that they are allowing Arabs to buy this country and that the viewers watching his show must not take it. He demands they drown the White House with telegrams telling President Ford, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” And, just like that, Hackett and Diana, who are being celebrated as heroes begin to feel the reality of what has just occurred. The CCA deal, which is worth two billion dollars with the Arabs will be held up, Hackett keeping Howard’s show on air has now potentially cost him a shot at being Arthur Jensen’s golden boy. Jensen is the head of CCA, one of the richest and most powerful men in business.
THE PROPHET, THE SALESMAN and IBM
Chayefsky and Lumet have built this story to such a specific place. With every scene taking Howard further up the chain of command, and each time the stakes getting higher for every party involved. Lumet wants Howard to see Jensen as god, and the director sets up this meeting with a beautiful shot of Howard being led up a marble staircase and he begins shouting like a prophet, arms flung towards heaven, and the man leading him up has to reel him in. The staircase is a visual vehicle that shows us, for the first time, Howard ascending towards a decision maker. Lumet could have started this sequence by showing Howard and Jensen meeting in an office, but this transition scene tells us exactly the kind of relationship these two will have, without saying it. Beale’s encounter with Jensen leads to him understanding that individualism is over, democracy is over and dehumanization is real. Jensen has sold Beale on the fact that business runs the world. IBM and Exxon rule, and though Beale has stopped the Arab deal, he cannot stop the world from changing.
Over the next week, Beale creates a show that depresses the public and the ratings dip low, and once again Diana and Hackett are searching for ratings. As the Howard Beale Show unravels, so does Diana’s relationship with Max. When her ratings are up, she is up and her life is together, but the issue becomes that everything is about work for Diana. Max has become one of her scripts and knows it. He may be the last contact for her with reality. Diana has become television incarnate, and in this film television is only banality. Chayefsky has written a character in Diana that represents what he believes television to be: madness and death. We see this as Max leaves Diana. Max has come to his senses and leaves Diana to return to his wife, and he knows she won’t take him back. The story shows us that the news man is back, the man who hunts for the truth is here, and though it is painful he will get back on the path and do what is necessary to bring what is real to the people.
THE FINALE OF THE HOWARD BEALE SHOW
Jensen will not let Hackett fire Howard, it would cause public outrage. So Hackett, in the night, gathers the decision makers, including Diana to determine what to do about Beale. Lumet shoots them all sitting around in a perfect office with darkness covering their faces as they plot to kill Howard Beale on live television in order to get him off air, and capitalize on his ratings. The shadows represent the state of their souls, which are covered in darkness. And, Lumet also shows that, just like that, a group of people sitting in a posh office in the middle of the night can decide to take a life so that their careers can continue and profits can be made. Lumet doesn’t hit us over the head with it. This scene is very still, no one moves from where they are throughout it, and it contrasts the horrific violence that ensues when two gunmen, Ahmed Khan being one of them, assassinate Howard on live television and his terror organization claims credit.