SUNDAY ESSAY: The Social Media called Television

It is difficult to imagine what previous generations of humans thought and felt before media and devices took hold of the human mind and imagination. One hears about how ‘in tune with nature’ previous generations of people were. They probably didn’t think about it as admirable because it was simply necessary and there wasn’t much else to focus on. The nature world, whatever was right in front of the eyes, was all there was. Tiny variances in the weather or tiny changes in human behavior foretold events to come, and not the reflection of a person in a tiny glass faced box.

When the printed word was invented, only the elite could use it and only Kings and Popes had access to printed material. Books were copied by hand. The printing press suddenly made not only words but images available to masses of people. One of the earliest images meant to effect public opinion was a printing of two peasants farting in the direction of the Pope. Suddenly, the Pope was held up for ridicule and his power was called in to question. Whoever made this image had a new sort of power to fight back and that was only the beginning.

In early American history, the printed word played a vital role. Colonial America had many influential books that were read by influential people. Benjamin Franklin published a newspaper which further reinforced ideas and garnered influence. Freedom of the press was considered so important to the spread of ideas that would presumably be truthful that it was written in as a primary right in the US Constitution.

Benjamin Franklin’s newspaper

For a brief period, radio was a powerful medium and President Roosevelt used it to sooth the American people during the war years. Radio, however, had to compete with the movies. ‘Motion pictures’ mixed sound and image and the combination captured the imagination of people in a way that words, sounds, or images alone simply could not compete with. “Like writing history with lightening,” it was said of early movies.

And then, there was television. Television took the power of the media to new and unprecedented heights.  In less than a decade, the alternative universe of what was on TV was more interesting and vital, and therefore more powerful, than what was in front of a person’s eyes. The lives of people on TV surpassed in interest the real lives of the people who watched it, and it grew into a massive and powerful institution over a single generation. Less of life came from experience and more of life came from the managed world of TV.

In spite of the power and popularity of TV, it was always considered to be a corrosive media. People who read a lot of books were considered to be educated but people who watched a lot of TV were ridiculed as stupid followers of the “boob tube” even though it was a statistical fact that MOST people watched it for hours each day and the industry that grew around the TV produced shows that garnered ever larger audiences, often by pandering to the most prurient tastes of the public. The news divisions of the three networks that emerged from the scrum of the early years, ABC, CBS, and NBC, produced hours of news each week. These divisions were wildly influential and affected the kind of candidate that could seek high office. The candidacy of Franklin Roosevelt would have been impossible in the age of television but only three Presidents later the candidacy of John Kennedy was made by television.

The currency of television is ratings and it was ratings that drove advertisers to buy ads in the shows. Television viewing is measured by rating and share, which basically means the percentage of the population that is watching a show and the share of the population of people watching TV at any given time. So, for example, in a TV universe of 200 million people a 20 rating and a 50 share would be 40,000,000 people watching a given show out of 80,000,000 people watching TV. Those numbers are not made up; by the 1970s, the Big Three networks often commanded those kinds of viewership day after day, night after night, for years. Advertisers turned their brands into household names using the power of this incredible tool.

It is in to this world that the movie “Network” was made. The movie is a bruising satire about the generation that both worked in and watched TV. It is also an early look at the same phenomenon we live with today though the TV is our phones and the networks are the social media platforms.

The movie is set in 1976 and the Big Three networks have a fourth competitor, which in fact, they would in a few years when Fox Broadcasting would emerge. This fourth network, called UBS, has a news anchor named Howard Beale, and Beale is being pushed in to retirement. On a broadcast nearing the end of his tenure he announces on live TV that he will kill himself on the following Tuesday. His best friend and show producer Max Schumacher (played by an aging and dignified William Holden) wants to take him off the air, but the network notes that interest in Beale has suddenly peaked and they convince Howard not to kill himself. Instead, they allow him to come on to TV night after night and rant even as it appears that Howard is having some sort of mental breakdown. His angry rants touch on some seething undertone in American life that had become part of the Zeitgeist of 1970s America.

Mad as hell…

Of course, Beale goes in to be a ratings hit and the new corporate owners of UBS, a fictitious company called CCA, fires Max, who objects to his friend Howard being treated as a profitable carnival side show freak. CCA doesn’t care that Howard is insane; he’s a ratings hit and that drives the audience numbers needed to sell the ads that make the network and CCA profitable.

Max, however, is a man of a certain age who worked in the early days of television and had a life that predated television. His generation built TV but he wasn’t raised by it. The producer of the Howard Beale show is a young, beautiful, and ruthless baby boomer named Diane and Max falls for her. She is amoral and willing to put anything on the air that garners ratings because TV is her life. She talks about it to the exclusion of anything else and even murmurs about TV and shows and ratings during sex. Diane will put anything in television that will garner an audience, and is developing a show about a domestic terrorist group that she hopes will film it’s criminal activities week after week so that the footage can be presented on television.

A part of Max knows she represents the future, a future he feels is slipping away from him and so he entered in to a relationship with her and then decides to leave his wife for her. They move in together and he begins to work on a book about the early days of television just as she is working on the present and future of the media which is as ruthless and corporately driven as it is without scruples. Once television became big business that could both drive product sales and make or break political candidates, ownership became the realm of business titans who would and did invest billions to get in on the action.

As any who has worked in or watched television knows, shows become popular and then they become stale and the audience moves on. Howard’s rants go in a direction the audience doesn’t like and so his ratings begin to crater. At about the same time, Max comes to realize just how shallow and weak Diane really is. The passion fades and the reality of a generation raised on TV emerges. He has to leave her in order to save whatever real life, love, dignity and passion he has left.

Dignity in departure

“Network” was released in 1976 and was a hit as well as an Oscar winner. It is an incredibly prescient film as well; all of the same pathologies and generational gaps that are in “Network” are still with us today. One could easily imagine an aging boomer man trying to relate to a millennial girl who has known nothing else but the internet and social media. Those that are creatures of the press and garner their habits and values from a screen are a different breed than those humans long ago, and the few still with us, who lived in the world of physical pleasures, dangers, loves, and accomplishments. The internet has delivered as many wonders as TV but brought with it all the same pathological tendencies and pushed them deeper in to our consciousness. Social media warps our perceptions, but TV did it first.

The Big Three networks could never deliver a 20 ratings or 50 share now. Nothing on TV, even the Super Bowl, comes close to delivering that kind of mass audience. Social media sells advertisers on the ability to hit millions of niche targets with ads. That is their power. But the internet and social media is still a world that exists on a screen, and as such, presents a life that is false and mostly managed. “Real” life is not there even though we spend more and more of our lives there. The iPhone has given us what is called ‘tech addiction’ but it is more of the same handing over of life to the false world of the media in exchange for our time and mind. The ‘network’ that comes through the screen is living for us and so the next steps are as dystopian as they are inevitable unless we decide on our own to turn it off and look up at the natural world around us, not because we have no choice but because it was the world we were born to. Otherwise we might not wake up at all.

At the other end of the movie “Network” is “The Matrix” when the false world is sent directly to our brains and that is all there is.

William Holden
Faye Dunaway
Peter Finch as Howard Beale
When humans live in an entirely fake world: the Matrix