A huge commercial as well as critical hit when it first came out in the middle of America’s New Wave obsession with serious dramatic filmmaking in the 1970s, Network has been more successful than many others at holding onto its legacy of edgy and unusually keen prescience. Even today, Network remains the gold standard for measuring the worth Hollywood’s latet attempt to cast a critical eye on that part of the business responsible for filling hour after hour of broadcasting. Almost invariably, a contemporary viewing of Network inevitably produces an instant analysis that discerns a narrative that what was satirical in 1976 would, for some contemporary commentators, can seem uncannily close to our current media landscape.
The legacy of Network still being viewed as the ultimate statement about the media and manipulation inherent in the television industry lies in the perfect matching of screenwriter and director to produce a collaborative create a coherent argument everybody seems to agree upon despite the message in the transmission diverging significantly from the message ultimately received. The paradox of Network is that its maker were saying something about the current state of TV at the time which audiences completely misheard as a message about what TV might be like in the future. Somehow, this paradox served the interest of widespread understanding of the film’s messages and themes. That it did also serves to confirm the extent of the influence of director Sidney Lumet on creating that paradoxical space in which the film worked its magic.
In his career, Sidney Lumet directed more than 60 episodes, live productions and made-for-TV movies. Between the two of them, Lumet and Network screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky were as influential in developing the type of high-quality, serious network drama which earned the period in which they worked The Golden Age of Television and which had become al but unrecognizable to the state of TV production when work began on Network.
The influence on Network of Sidney Lumet—a director who knew the intricacies of television production as well as any working at the time—can therefore be understood better by considering something always insisted about his film rather than something in the film: “Paddy Chayefsky and I always said this isn't satire, it's sheer reportage.”