Howard Beale is the Walter Cronkite of the nightly newscast of the Union Broadcasting System. Television is a young person’s game, however, and Howard is getting a bit old to continue as the face of the network’s news division. Therefore, Max Schumacher—President of the news division and an old friend of Howard’s—informs him that due to falling ratings, he will be forced out in two weeks.
The next night on the evening news, Beale calmly announces his plans to commit suicide live on the air. This results in his immediate dismissal but Schmacher manages to gain him one last newscast so he can leave the business on a more dignified note. Instead, Beale launches into manic rant that gives the newscast its highest ratings in years. Rather than fire him, Beale is now given free rein to express himself, resulting in coast-to-coast exhibition of his power when he urges people to get up off their couch, open their windows and shout as loud as they can, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore.”
Beale’s power to connect with the simmering anger of an American society that really is mad as hell not prepared to take it anymore instantly transforms the entire business of TV programming. Diana Christensen, head of UBS programming, takes the radical step of creating the prototype for what in real life will become known as the reality show genre: actual terrorists starring in The Mao Tse-Tung Show. Once Beale appears to have hit a ceiling with mad newscaster routine, Christensen lobbies to place news under the programming division and the result is The Howard Beale Show where he is labeled “the mad prophet of the airwaves.”
The show’s rating are through the roof and Howard Beale has gone from being fired in two weeks to becoming the network’s greatest star. Meanwhile Max and Diana become romantically involved. Max leaves his wife, but Diana is obsessed with her career and finding every crazier ways to entertain the public.
UBS is in the process of being bought by a Saudi Arabian conglomerate which drives Howard Beard to another crazy rant on live TV denigrating the influence of foreign interests on American entertainment. The American conglomerate which owns UBS is royally ticked off by one of their own turning against, especially when a merger is the only way for the network to survive its crushing debt load. Eventually, Beale’s ratings start to slide and so the network decides to hire members of the terrorist group the Ecumenical Liberation Army to assassinate Howard Beale on live TV, thus killing two problems facing the network with one stone
The Howard Beale Show is forced to an end while the Mao Tse-Tung Hour is award its lucrative time slot for its second season.