When Broadcast News premiered in 1987, it revealed the harsh realities of the television network news business, beginning with the necessity of answering to the bottom line. Once upon a time, perhaps, a television network’s news division was prized for its prestige, without regard to ratings. That paradigm shifted in the 1980s.
Holly Hunter stars as Jane Craig, a producer for an unnamed fictional television network. Based in Washington, D.C., Jane is smart, driven, and unrelenting in her quest to find, shape, and produce a good news story. Unexpectedly, she falls for Tom Grunick, played by William Hurt. Where Jane is intelligent, curious, and methodical, Grunick is simply handsome, charming, and, at times, self-effacing. He is neither lazy nor cocksure. Simply, Tom knows that the network bosses prize him for his ability to read a teleprompter with authority. Smartly, he relies on others, like Jane, to make the editorial decisions regarding news content.
Aaron Altman, played by Albert Brooks, shudders at Tom’s gliding into the newsroom on the wings of the power brokers, who seemingly ignore the hard work of reporters in the trenches. With dreams of being an anchor, Aaron sees Tom as a threat to journalism. However, Aaron does seek Tom’s advice when he gets an opportunity to anchor the network’s news program on Saturday night. Under pressure, Aaron has a case of flop sweat during the broadcast.
Complicating matters is the love triangle between Tom, Jane, and Aaron. In a poignant exchange, Aaron says, “I know you care about him. I’ve never seen you like this about anyone, so please don’t get me wrong when I tell you that Tom, while being a very nice guy, is the devil.”
While it’s pathos masked by humor, Aaron rebuts Jane’s frustration at this line of attack by pointing out that which Jane already knows, but won’t let herself believe. “He personifies everything that you’ve been fighting against. And I’m in love with you,” declares Aaron. Jane responds by wincing and turning her head, as if Aaron slugged her. In a way, he did.
Jane remains steadfast in her romance with Tom, but encounters a fork in her emotional road when she discovers, thanks to Aaron, that Tom cried on cue when he interviewed a victim of date rape. Because Tom only had one camera operator, he forced himself to cry after the woman finished her story, so the camera could capture him. In turn, the editing process joined the pieces together to make the segment seamless, as if Tom truly reacted in the moment. Horrified at this breach of journalistic ethics, Jane splits with Tom.
A brutal layoff at the network does not affect Tom. Quite the opposite, in fact. The network sends him to London, grooming him as the apparent successor to the network news anchor job, currently occupied by Bill Rorish. Aaron points out that the network sent Rorish to London before making him the news anchor. Jack Nicholson plays Rorish.
A coda takes place seven years later. As Aaron predicted, Tom gets the anchor job. Aaron has been a local reporter with a television station in Portland, Oregon. The three characters reunite and, in a circular fashion, Jane agrees to take an editorial position leading Tom’s team in New York.