Howard Beale, the longtime anchor of the Union Broadcasting System’s UBS Evening News, learns from friend and news division president Max Schumacher that he has just two more weeks on the air because of declining ratings. The two get drunk and lament the state of their industry. The following night, Beale announces on live television that he will commit suicide on next Tuesday’s broadcast. UBS fires him after this incident, but Schumacher intervenes so that Beale can have a dignified farewell. Beale promises he will apologize for his outburst, but once on the air, he launches back into a rant claiming that life is “bullshit.” Beale’s outburst causes the newscast’s ratings to spike, and much to Schumacher’s dismay, the upper echelons of UBS decide to exploit Beale’s antics rather than pull him off the air. When Beale’s ratings seem to have topped out, Diana Christensen, who heads the network’s programming department, approaches Schumacher and offers to help him “develop” the news show. He says no to the professional offer, but she also makes a personal offer and the two begin an affair.
Christensen, seeking just one hit show, cuts a deal with a band of terrorists called the Ecumenical Liberation Army for a new docudrama series called The Mao Tse-Tung Hour for the upcoming fall season. When Schumacher decides to end Beale’s “angry man” format, Christensen convinces her boss, Frank Hackett, to slot the evening news show under the entertainment programming division so she can develop it. Hackett agrees, bullying the UBS executives to consent and fire Schumacher. In one impassioned diatribe, Beale galvanizes the nation, persuading his viewers to shout out of their windows “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Soon afterward, Beale is hosting a new program called The Howard Beale Show, top-billed as “the mad prophet of the airwaves”. Ultimately, the show becomes the most highly rated program on television, and Beale finds new celebrity preaching his angry message in front of a live studio audience that, on cue, chants Beale’s signature catchphrase en masse: “We’re as mad as hell, and we’re not going to take this anymore.” At first, Max and Diana’s romance withers as the show flourishes, but in the flush of high ratings, the two ultimately find their way back together, and Schumacher leaves his wife of over 25 years for Christensen.
When Beale discovers that Communications Corporation of America (CCA), the conglomerate that owns UBS, will be bought out by an even larger Saudi Arabian conglomerate, he launches an on-screen tirade against the deal and urges viewers to pressure the White House to stop it. This panics the top network brass because UBS’s debt load has made the merger essential for its survival. Hackett takes Beale to meet with CCA chairman Arthur Jensen, who explicates his own “corporate cosmology” to Beale, describing the inter-relatedness of the participants in the international economy and the illusory nature of nationality distinctions. Christensen’s fanatical devotion to her job and emotional emptiness ultimately drive away Schumacher, who warns his former lover that she will self-destruct at the pace she is running with her career. “You are television incarnate, Diana,” he tells her, “indifferent to suffering, insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality.” Jensen persuades Beale to abandon his populist message and preach his new “evangel”. However, ratings slide as audiences find his new sermons on the dehumanization of society depressing, yet Jensen will not allow UBS to fire Beale. Seeing its two-for-the-price-of-one value—solving the Beale problem plus sparking a boost in season-opener ratings—Christensen, Hackett, and the other executives decide to hire the ELA to assassinate Beale on the air. The assassination succeeds, putting an end to The Howard Beale Show and kicking off a second season of The Mao Tse-Tung Hour.
As Beale lies bleeding on the set, a camera swings over the body in a crane shot — the tight depth of field of this final shot results in the camera apparently running over the corpse. We then cut to four television screens, three displaying news reports covering Beale’s death, and the bottom-left displaying a contemporary commercial. The overlapping audio creates an unintelligible cacophony. Each news report plays out, two cutting to a different commercial, while the bottom-left screen replays Beale’s death in slow-motion. The screens momentarily freeze, and a voiceover proclaims the film “the story of Howard Beale, the first known instance of a man who was killed because he had lousy ratings.” All of the screens fade to black, except for a still-frame of the murder. The overlapping audio slowly resolves throughout the credits, finally ending in a sound effect of a single news teletype.