Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Articulating the Popular Rage: A Comparison of Sidney Lumet's Network and NBC's 30 Rock

Sidney Lumet's 1976 film Network and the television show 30 Rock offer very different satirical portrayals of network television and their multi-national parent corporations. The most obvious (and perhaps most important) difference between the two pieces is that while Network exists in a world amongst the NBCs and the ABCs, it depicts a fictional network and parent corporation. Conversely, 30 Rock seeks to satirize its own network, NBC, and its parent company, General Electric. And, while both are satires, they operate in very different ways.

One would assume that any satire would seem to have the same goal – to seek improvement of something by way of bombastic or sarcastic portrayal. This is very clear in Network, where the news is taken over by the programming department to be “crafted,” and an ambitious young executive played by Faye Dunaway says to a group of radicals, “I'm offering you an hour of prime time television every week into which you can stick whatever propaganda you want” (Network). Her idea for this new show, the “Mao Tse-Tung Hour,” is to have it “open with an authentic act of political terrorism” each week (Network). Though Network sought to make a statement about the conditions in which the media and large corporations were operating, the film

was not going to simply be a diatribe against television as a cultural wasteland...television reflected modern American life; when you satirized television, you satirized this country. (Boyer 70)

The jokes and sarcasm in Network are not aimed at the viewer, but rather the giant corporations that manipulate the direction of public thought and public discourse. The film's message is clear; it is imperative that we, as a society, must hold media conglomerates accountable for their content and constantly question the motives behind the material they put in front of viewers.

In the film, the catalyst for all the changes at UBS (the fictional network) is anchorman Howard Beale, a man at the end of his career and faced with dismissal from his job. After he finds out he is being replaced, he goes on the air to claim that he will commit suicide live during his last broadcast. This sparks an outrage from the executives, but he is eventually able to convince his longtime friend to let him go on one last time to apologize to their viewers. Instead, Beale delivers a rant declaring that “life is bullshit.” The rant boosts the networks ratings, and Beale is granted his own show as a “mad prophet” to “articulate the popular rage” – something the network only grants due to the potential advertising revenue his show might create (Network).

Howard Beale's most poignant speech is made during the first time we see him on his new show. He's ranting about what it means for a large conglomerate to own a media company; he says

… when the 12th largest company in the world controls the most awesome goddamn propaganda force in the whole godless world, who knows what shit will be peddled for truth on this network. (Network)

While the movie Network tackles the idea of multinational conglomerates owning media outlets head on and with vigor, 30 Rock is not so confrontational. 30 Rock depicts NBC and GE as innocuous, bumbling giants aiming to make people laugh and sell pocket microwaves, respectively.

“I'm the new Vice President of East Coast Television and Microwave Oven Programming,” the fictional Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) declares in the first few minutes of 30 Rock's pilot episode, a declaration that diminishes the idea of GE/NBC's executive leadership to a laughable level – to something a mass audience easily recognizes as a joke. In reality, GE is a dominant corporation that likely does not afford laughable titles to its executives. With assets near $800 billion, Forbes recently named GE the world's largest company (“The Global 2000”). When a comedy show that airs on a network owned by the world's largest corporation portrays its enormous parent company as an entity with silly aims like creating pocket microwaves, one is compelled to ask “is this responsible?” General Electric is a company that “builds new nuclear plants, fixes broken ones and makes old ones generate more power.” (Fahey). GE is also responsible for polluting the Hudson River with persistent organic pollutants, and then flatly refusing to clean up after themselves (Sullivan). So how is 30 Rock's portrayal of these giant corporations not propaganda? How can we see it as not just another means of mitigating flak from the public? It would seem that 30 Rock is a show borne out of corporations' “growing resentment of media criticism” that uses pseudo-criticism in order to placate the masses (Herman and Chomsky 276).

In Network, there is nothing at stake. The UBS network is not real, and the conglomerate that owns it is not real. The movie acts as a social commentary and a cautionary tale, but in a way that has no real-world implications on any real company or real people. The executives in Network

...are indifferent to suffering; they can feel pleasure but not joy, lust but not passion. They live by no code of ethics, no driving motive beyond personal interest. They have lost all sense of right and wrong, of true and false. (Boyer 72)

30 Rock's executives are caricatures. They offer the viewer a quick giggle, and that is all. They offer no real insight into the inner workings of General Electric or NBC; they act as a facade – a satirical cushion against the perceptions of the public – for NBC's viewers and GE's customers. 30 Rock's chaos effectively manufactures cognitive dissonance in its audience; the viewers are blinded by the jokes and cajoled into accepting 30 Rock's version of NBC and GE. This does not mean that the viewer is necessarily tricked into equating the fictional with the real, but perhaps coerced into accepting the on-screen simulacrum as merely the benign public-facing extension of NBC and GE.

It is tempting to accuse NBC and GE of some kind of corporate “trick,” but it would be unfair to leave the audience's complicity in this “trick” unacknowledged. Why are viewers so eager to see corporate manipulation as entertainment? Is it possible that we prefer viewing a fictionalized version of corporate control than actually acknowledging an enormous corporation's actual existence and true influence?

It seems that media consumers often view television without the proper amount of skepticism. It's easy to be entertained, but it's important to look at the costs of this entertainment, and not necessarily just in terms of economics. How does something like a multinational corporation's usurpation of parody in its own comedy show affect society? How is it that we not only put up with having our eyes constantly veiled, but actually pay for it? Well, in the words of Howard Beale, “I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore.”


Works Cited

Boyer, Jay. Sidney Lumet. New York: Twayne, 1993.
Chomsky, Noam, and Edward Herman. "A Propaganda Model." Media and Cultural Studies Keyworks. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006. 257-94.

Fahey, Jonathan. "GE Enriches Its Nukes Business." Forbes Magazine. 29 Oct. 2009. Web. 4 Nov. 2009. .

Network. Dir. Sidney Lumet. Perf. Fay Dunaway, William Holden, and Peter Finch. Warner Home Video, 1976. Netflix. Web. 1 Nov. 2009.

Sullivan, Ned, and Rich Schiafo. "Talking Green, Acting Dirty." New York Times 12 June 2005. Web. 2 Nov. 2009. .

"The Global 2000 -" - Business News, Financial News, Stock Market Analysis, Technology & Global Headline News. Web. 3 Nov. 2009. .


Justin Rands said...

I just subscribed to your blog on google reader based on our past history. But mostly because you told Tao to eat shit on his stupid fucking contest. Semen tshirts for everyone.

Bryan Coffelt said...

yeah, that was some fucking bullshit, right?