A Question for those of you old enough to remember – or for those of you young enough to rediscover classic pop culture phenomenons – do you remember Max Headroom?
Max was a goofy computer generated TV host who became the face of the 1980’s New Coke commercials, host of an MTV veejay show, and eventually the star of American and British TV shows. With his static filled choppy way of speaking, Max had a tongue in cheek way of looking at the media and always seemed to have a comeback. As computer graphics began to take off, so did Max’s brilliant shows and his satirical persona. But, like all fads, Max Headroom quickly faded away from the limelight in the late 80’s, never to be seen again. Moving into 2015 however, his show, his message, and his character have never been so relevant even though people and technology have long since moved on.
The key fact you must know about Max headroom is that he wasn’t computer generated at all, he just appeared to be. He was played by Canadian/ American actor Matt Frewer. He would spend up to four hours in the makeup chair just to get that plastic look. As for the glitches and freeze ups in Max’s performance, that was of course done deliberately with computers and harmonizers to make the character stand out. Max debuted on a British TV movie in 1985 which set the basis for the series. The show ran for fourteen episodes, following a post apocalyptic media run world. But it wasn’t the message that was the star of the show, it was Max. Soon, he jumped the pond and began appearing on MTV with his own interview and music shows. Once the United States saw the popularity of Max and series from Great Britain, an American production began.
This is where Coke jumped in to cash in on the new star. They bought advertising rights and used him as spokesmen for New Coke applying the tagline “Catch the Wave.” But it seemed hypocritical seeing as the whole basis of the American show was to poke fun and criticize both the media and the greed of advertising.
Max Headroom debuted in the spring of 1987. This series followed Frewer in a second role; that of investigative reporter Edison Carter trying to expose the wrongdoings and evil plans of the media company that employs him. After an accident, his memory is downloaded on a computer and his news anchor alter ego Max Headroom is born.
Even though the show used state of the art technology, the storylines were quite ahead of their time. In this postapocalyptic world, the screen ranked supreme, with televisions on every street and in every home. The media company utilized methods like “blipverts” which were split second ads so powerful, they could shock a person’s system and kill them. Other storylines included using early styles of reality television and over the top accidents to attract viewers. After two seasons, it was cancelled. Audiences just weren’t ready for these hard hitting media hating storylines. As he exploded onto television, the anchor Max Headroom disappeared.
Now, as 2014 comes to a close, we can all agree that there have never been more screens surrounding us in all of history than there is now. Phones, lap tops, and televisions in every room act as distractions from work and original thought. With each screen flashing advertisements, even though not as powerful as the aforementioned “blipverts”, we are led some way or other on every website. Whatever the Max Headroom show was showcasing in its fictional post-apocalyptic world, it has been over shadowed by an overwhelming amount of media trying to invade our own headroom.
Looking back at the year, it’s easy to see how corrupt and business focused some of the media has become. Rolling Stone magazine recently came under fire for its article A Rape on Campus that only showcased one side of a story involving an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia. Last year, they also famously showcased the Boston Marathon Bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev with a cool rock star persona. It can be argued that both stories were done to attract attention and sell magazines. But this also leads to the topic of how much influence the media has. This year was overshadowed by the Ebola crisis that broke in West Africa and threatened to spread around the globe. Over six thousand West African citizens have died from the disease. After the media got wind that an American doctor was infected, a mass panic was created. Two deaths and a total of ten confirmed cases became the ultimate reality for the US. The whole Ebola craze has now seemingly disappeared from the media since there is little excitement to support the stories previously being broadcasted.
How about the power and influence of media personalities? Canadian radio host Jian Ghomeshi was fired from the CBC after reports of sexual physical abuse with him and former lovers surfaced. Fans blamed the CBC for this rash decision, but only until Ghomeshi dropped his lawsuit against his former employer and was arrested on four counts of sexual assault. Similar allegations and lawsuits were attached to comedy legend Bill Cosby. Thanks to social media and a plethora of media outlets, these have been the top stories of 2014. Then, of course, there was former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford who became a world celebrity for drug and alcohol abuse and unprofessional behavior. Finally, one of the biggest news items was the outcome of Officer Daniel Pantaleo’s trial for shooting Eric Garner. The response is now to arm police with a camera at all times if these incidents occur.
So, what can we learn from all of this? With these screens having the power to start an Ebola panic, or give popularity to media outlets based on controversy rather than talent, or broadcast people’s controversial personal lives, or to influence the perceived guilt or innocence of people still undergoing trial – I’d say that the post-apocalyptic world of Max Headroom is not far off after all. It was dominated by advertisement heads, crooked journalists, and people utilizing silly controversies to make a buck. It may have seemed strange in the 1980’s, but it’s all too real now. The power and direction of today’s television and online news is staggering. Real news stories are hidden and forgotten, while trivial stories that sell are broadcasted to us 24/7. People need to put their screens down and search for the truth behind all the advertisements, marketing gimmicks, and corruption, much like Edison Carter and his alter-ego Max Headroom did. Technology has grown leaps and bounds from the 1980’s, so it’s likely that Max wouldn’t have his glitches in this day and age. Then again, it is what gives him his charm. Creators of the show say they mixed concepts from Network, the 1976 Oscar winning film and the 1982 sci-fi classic, Blade Runner, to make the world of Max Headroom. That world is very much real today, and we need someone to tell us the truth and make the media credible again. We need to give Max Headroom a second chance.