‘This story is about Howard Beale, who was the news anchorman on UBS TV. In his time, Howard Beale had been a mandarin of television, the grand old man of news, with a HUT rating of 16 and a 28 audience share. In 1969, however, his fortunes began to decline. He fell to a 22 share. The following year, his wife died, and he was left a childless widower with an 8 rating and a 12 share. He became morose and isolated, began to drink heavily, and on September 22, 1975, he was fired, effective in two weeks.‘
I recently saw a very good stage adaptation of the 1976 movie masterpiece ‘Network’ (National Theatre until 24 March). Brilliantly scripted by Paul Chayevsky, ‘Network’ tells the story of Howard Beale, an ageing TV news anchorman whose ratings are in decline and who suffers a mental breakdown. One evening, at the end of a broadcast, Beale threatens to commit suicide on-air. This obviously startles the studio bosses, until they realize that audience figures have spiked. They give Beale more airtime, and he assumes the role of ‘an angry prophet denouncing the hypocrisies of our times.’
‘Listen to me: Television is not the truth! Television is a God-damned amusement park! Television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats, storytellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, side-show freaks, lion tamers, and football players. We're in the boredom-killing business!‘
‘Network’ concerns itself with news, truth, media ethics, populism and global capitalism. It’s particularly compelling because these are issues that so trouble us today, some forty years on. The only difference is that the film focuses on the malign power of television, whereas we worry about the web and social media.
‘Right now, there is a whole, an entire generation that never knew anything that didn't come out of this tube. This tube is the gospel, the ultimate revelation. This tube can make or break presidents, popes, prime ministers. This tube is the most awesome goddamn propaganda force in the whole godless world, and woe is us if it ever falls into the hands of the wrong people.’
For people in business I think ‘Network’ represents a warning of the perils of chasing numbers. The sharp-dressed, fast-talking studio executives are obsessed with ratings and share, audience figures and syndication costs. They have lost sight of quality, truth and public responsibility. For them news is a commodity, a form of entertainment, a means of attracting eyeballs. It’s just a numbers game.
‘You're television incarnate, Diana: Indifferent to suffering; insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death are all the same to you as bottles of beer. And the daily business of life is a corrupt comedy. You even shatter the sensations of time and space into split seconds and instant replays.’
Of course, in commerce we all have to concern ourselves with the numbers: with page views, unique visitors and dwell time; with brand penetration, frequency and share; with managing costs down and income up; with delivering the bottom line. But it’s easy to lose perspective; to get things out of order and proportion. Sometimes we can be too busy chasing great numbers to deliver great product.
There’s an old business maxim that I understand they used to cite at BMP back in the day:
‘People, product, profit…in that order.’
I’ve always liked the way this adage recognizes that all three of people, product and profit are vital to business success. But there’s a hierarchy of importance – and a causal link between them: great culture produces great outputs, which in turn creates happy Clients and attracts new ones - thereby delivering commercial success.
Of course, it’s easier to identify the malaise at the heart of modern business than to know what to do about it. Howard Beale doesn’t really have any answers. But he does at least understand people’s frustration. And perhaps that’s a start. In the most memorable scene in ‘Network,’ Beale invites his audience to vent their outrage at a system that seems to have betrayed the American Dream.
‘I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell, 'I'm as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this any more!’’
Maybe we should all give this a try.