Infotainment and the Sounds of Network News
Network is one of the most critically lauded films in cinema history, sitting comfortably on AFI's list of 100 Greatest American Movies. It is also one of only a handful of films to win three best acting Oscars. Now it's on the Broadway stage with superstars Bryan Cranston, Tony Goldwyn and Tatiana Maslany in leading roles. But there's something else that makes Network unique.
Often mistakenly viewed as a satire, Network is a scathing commentary on the world of news, the desperate clawing for ratings, and the rise of 'infotainment'. The film features no score, the only music employed is from commercials and TV show themes, and there's good reason for this. The music behind television news is familiar and oftentimes not consciously analyzed, but it beams its own sonic message straight into your living room.
Video news got its start via newsreels which were shown in movie theatres either alongside a film or sometimes even in specific houses where the reels would be looped and viewers could stop in to get their news at their leisure. The medium really picked up when televisions became a household appliance.
The CBS Evening News eschewed music and used a teletype sound to intro the show while NBC's Huntley-Brinkley Report used Beethoven's 9th Symphony. Then in the 1980's, everything changed. NBC went straight to the king of scoring himself: John Williams. Best known for his work on mega-blockbusters like Star Wars, Jaws, and ET, Williams is considered one of the biggest names in cinema composing. NBC went full on to create their theme, bringing in a full orchestra. The Mission Theme has been in use in various forms for the last 30 years and is considered one of the greatest news themes ever written.
This collaboration with a film icon began to introduce a new level of entertainment value to news broadcasts in a way that hadn't previously existed. More networks began to employ the services of film composers tapping names such as James Horner (Titanic), commissioned to write a theme for CBS News, and Hans Zimmer (Pirates of the Caribbean, Inception) who wrote the ABC World News Theme.
Even more theatrical personages had a go evidenced by Marvin Hamlisch's theme for Good Morning America in 1975.
By 1990, CNN was gaining traction through coverage of the Persian Gulf War and began using music to back different segments instead of just intros. The trick caught on and soon networks were employing dozens of themes to highlight special reports, breaking news, war coverage, election coverage. Music became a way to underscore a moment, not dissimilar to its use in film.
In storytelling, music operates as a shortcut, a way of communicating ideas faster and oftentimes more subtly than words or images can. News music began to operate in this way. Snare drums became a common theme when discussing the military as it evokes the sense of marching and drum lines. Michael Karp's NBC's election theme, for example, evokes feelings of motivation, victory, a march to the finish line.
But along with communication comes persuasion, evocation of feelings and emotions. John Williams created a villain with two notes in the maritime masterpiece Jaws; two notes still have the ability to create feelings of trepidation and fear. News networks figured out just how to use this to their advantage. Themes suddenly balanced urgency with a feeling that all is under control. Solemnity paired with vibes of importance but without sensationalism.
By 2003, the cinematic approach to news presentation was standard, ushering in the level of entertainment value we're familiar with today. Indeed, with the influence of mainstream entertainment, television news has become deeply influenced by its medium. The television has always been a place to escape to, offering up shows and movies to suspend reality and immerse oneself in the peace of an alternate universe. News networks are forced to compete in this realm and music plays a huge role in building up the world of information.
Network seeks to remind us that television news is about more than just keeping viewers up to date with what's happening in the world. While covering politics they're playing politics of their own, rushing for ratings to lead the world in the industry of infotainment. This is just the kind of thing that's making Howard Beale mad as hell. Don't miss Network on Broadway for the chance to see Bryan Cranston decide he's not going to take it anymore!
For the most comprehensive archive of news music and to learn more visit Victor Vlam's Network News Music.
You can also check out Every Little Thing's in-depth look at how the news found its sound below:
Photo Credit: Jan Verweyveld