The Pop History Dig

“Max Headroom”
1984-1988

April 1987 Newsweek cover. "I'm an image whose time has come,” says Max Headroom.
April 1987 Newsweek cover. "I'm an image whose time has come,” says Max Headroom.
     A 1980s’ offering of sci-fi television with a sense of humor and a good bit of satire that perhaps got a little too close to the truth, was the 1987-1988 British-derived ABC-TV show named Max Headroom.  The show was quite popular in its limited American run, but was pulled off the air before its final two episodes ran.  Still today, the show has something of a cult and on-line following and remains one of television history’s more engaging self- critiques.

     Max Headroom was a show about an acci- dentally-created, computer-generated being named “Max Headroom” who lived inside a television network’s computer system.  Max, as he was known, was forever randomly popping up in each of the televised episodes with pearls of wit and wisdom, delivered in his trademark computer-to-blame stutter, often aggravating friends and foes alike.  Still, Max was a generally likeable creation once viewers got to know him.

     Max Headroom the character was “born” when an actual news reporter named Edison Carter – ace investigative, mini-cam-toting reporter for Network 23 – had a near-death encounter in pursuit of a story.  On a motorcycle, Carter was racing into a parking garage on the trail of some hot information when he smashed through, and was knocked out by, an automated entrance gate emblazoned with the warning phrase “maximum headroom.”  That was the last phrase the erstwhile reporter recorded in his brain. 

Ace reporter, Edison Carter, inadvertently becomes the basis for the computer-generated 'Max'.
Ace reporter, Edison Carter, inadvertently becomes the basis for the computer-generated 'Max'.
…And to make a long story short, Carter’s brain is somehow scanned into a computer, because his TV network doesn’t trust him.  The network is after something in Carter’s brain; something he’s discovered.  More on that later.

     In the process of Carter’s brain being scanned into the computer, a digital being is created  —  i.e., “Max” – who in appear- ance and manner resembles the real-world Edison Carter.  The new entity is officially dubbed “Max Headroom” after he stutters through that phrase in his first on-screen appearance.  Max, of course, lives in the computer. 

     Ace reporter Edison Carter, meanwhile, fully recovers from his trauma and returns to video reporting.  Max, however, begins to evolve on his own as a mostly uncontrolled character and independent agent wandering around inside his the television network’s computer world.  With that, more or less, the Max Headroom TV series was introduced to the American audience.  The first episode aired on the ABC network in March 1987.

Edison Carter & Theora Jones at Network 23 with Max Headroom in the background.
Edison Carter & Theora Jones at Network 23 with Max Headroom in the background.
     In addition to Edison Carter and Max, who both are played by Canadian actor Matt Frewer, there are several other mostly regular characters who inhabit the U.S. TV version.  Back in the studio – though plugged into Carter’s ear while he is in the field – is his good-looking controller, Theora Jones, played by Amanda Pays.  These two are sort of a item, and they continue their romantic tension throughout the series.  Other characters include teenage computer whiz and hacker, Bryce Lynch, played Chris Young, who is also Network 23‘s one-man technology research department.  Bryce often deals with Max as he pops up in the computer network and is also involved in some of the network’s nefarious doings (he scanned Carter’s brain into the computer, for example, and helps design other computer-TV manipulations).  Bryce, however, has sympathies for Edison, Max, and Theora.

Edison Carter, Theora Jones, Murray, Ben Cheviot, and boy-wonder Bryce at top.
Edison Carter, Theora Jones, Murray, Ben Cheviot, and boy-wonder Bryce at top.
     Murray is the studio manager, played by Jeffrey Tambor (red tie in photo).  Ben Cheviot, the top man at Network 23, is played by George Coe in bow tie at right in photo.  Ned Grossberg, not shown, is the former head of Network 23, forced out after Edison Carter’s near death, and then becoming head of rival Network 66.  Grossberg is played by Charles Rocket.

     A character called Blank Reg is one of the “blanks” – those without computer identities.  He is played by W. Morgan Sheppard.  Blank Reg is the renegade cyberpunk owner of the outlawed and underground BIG Time TV station.  At times, Blank Reg is also a friend to Edison Carter.



Dark, Grimy World

The "Max Headroom" series depicted a dystopia where TV sets were strewn about everywhere, even in the city's slums.
The "Max Headroom" series depicted a dystopia where TV sets were strewn about everywhere, even in the city's slums.
     Max Headroom had a range of influences in its creation – the cyberpunk movement, MTV, early 1980s’ science fiction, and post-apocalyptic films, to name a few.  The 1984 novel, Neuromancer, by William Gibson, a book which brought public attention to the cyberpunk movement, was one influence on the show.  It was Gibson’s book that introduced the term, “cyberspace” into the English language. 

     Films such as The Road Warrior (1981) and Bladerunner (1982) are also believed to have influenced the look and tone of the world of Max Headroom and the show’s setting.  The world in which Edison Carter does his reporting is a tough, grimy-streets type of world where life is not always valued.  Youth punker gangs inhabit this world.  As do “blanks,” citizens that have managed to avoid being recorded in the corporate databanks of the day, and live outside the system as subversive have-nots.  There is also a mafia-organized sport called “raking,” a deadly form of motorized skateboarding.

Newtork 23 corporate executives shown at board meeting where they can also monitor "intant tele-ratings."
Newtork 23 corporate executives shown at board meeting where they can also monitor "intant tele-ratings."
     But the “big evil” at the center of this world and throughout the series is corporate domination through television.  The setting is not pretty.  Satellites monitor all activity.  At every street corner “securi-cams” monitor the population.  “Electro-democracy” has arrived, but it is controlled by the networks which rig “instant tele-elections.”  Still, the world has 4,000 TV channels, and that’s what the corporations are fighting about.  Among their battle techniques – and those also used occasionally by the underground – is “zipping,” or computer hi-jacking /inter- rupting of satellite signals.  But mostly the networks are just greedy; primarily interested in controlling viewers for commercial gain and power.  Ratings and advertising are monitored minute-to-minute in real time, and executives are called on the carpet immediately for any slippage.  Television sets, in any case, can’t be turned off  — and they’re everywhere, even built into the sides of trash cans.

The "Network 23" building headquarters in "Max Headroom" TV series.
The "Network 23" building headquarters in "Max Headroom" TV series.
     Zic-Zac is the name of the corporation that owns Network 23, where Edison, Theora and Bryce work and Max lives.  Zic Zac and other companies do battle for consumer hearts, minds and loyalties, using television and all manner of unseemly technologies to manipulate their behavior for the benefit of television ratings.  Carter discovers, for example, that his own network is using “blipverts,” a form of advertising that compresses thirty seconds of commercial messaging into three seconds.  However, blipverts can cause neural over-stimulation in viewers, leading in some cases to death – this, the big secret that Edison Carter has uncovered.  There is also “neurostim,” cheap give-aways which hypnotize people into irrational acts of consumption by implanting memories directly into their minds; and “Whacketts,” a mindless but addictive TV game show.  And when the networks run out of  new creative exploits to use for programming, they turn to using the audience’s dreams as broadcast material.  But this, too, has unpleasant side effects.

More city slums with ubiquitous TVs.
More city slums with ubiquitous TVs.
     Beyond the TV and corporate machinations in this world aimed at controlling and manipulating viewers, there are also a variety of scam artists at work.  In one episode called “Dieties,” an old flame of Edison’s is running a TV ministry that promises to resurrect people after they die by restoring their personalities from copied profiles stored in a computer.  The old flame tried to use Edison to retrieve the computer-generated version of Max, as her church wanted to learn Max’s secrets so it could offer the technique to preserve its members’ personalities eternally – just like Max.


British Invention

Cover of VHS for original U.K. "Max Headroom" film.
Cover of VHS for original U.K. "Max Headroom" film.
     Max Headroom originally began as a British invention.  The idea came from Peter Wagg of Chrysalis Records, and with the help of others, was further developed.  In 1984, the Channel Four TV network in the U.K. commissioned “The Max Headroom Show”.   However, this was not the dramatic series that most Americans came to know, but rather, a British music video show in which Max, in his computer-generated form, appeared on a large screen as the show’s electronic host.  This “Max” was also played by Matt Frewer, who gave sharp and witty opinions on the pop music videos that he introduced and played as the show’s “host.”  This video show proved to be a giant success in the U.K., and it was decided to give Max more substance and provide him with an origin and storyline.  That project evolved into a feature-length TV movie, Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into the Future, cast in the cyberpunk genre and set in a society where television has completely taken over, similar to the storyline that would later appear in the U.S. series.  The British-made hour-long movie ran on Channel 4 in the U.K. in early April 1985.  The film was used to introduce Max Headroom, Edison Carter, Theora Jones, Murray the controller, Bryce Lynch, and another character, underground TV station owner, Blank Reg.


Some of the Max Headroom “New Coke” promo items for short-lived ad campaign.
Some of the Max Headroom “New Coke” promo items for short-lived ad campaign.
Max & Coke

     Meanwhile, the U.K.’s Max Headroom  TV video show continued running for a few more seasons.  There were also a few related TV specials.  The Max Headroom video show format then migrated to the U.S. in a somewhat different form, where Max, for a time, became a late night talk show host.  From there, Max became more widely known in the U.S., especially after he picked up a commercial advertising gig with Coca-Cola, becoming the “spokeshead” for Coca-Cola’s “New Coke” advertising campaign.  These ads used the slogan “Catch the Wave” – or in Max stutter- speak, “Ca-Ca-Catch the Wave.” 

Max Headroom for Coke. "Catch the Wave."
Max Headroom for Coke. "Catch the Wave."
     Max’s advertising deal with Coke was then reported to be worth $4 million.  Coke’s decision to use Max to pitch New Coke was partly motivated by its desire to reach the younger consumers then being won over by Pepsi – the 12-to-30-year-old market, the key consumer group in the huge $25-billion-a-year soft drink market.  Coke wanted a spokesperson that would appeal to this audience and Max was their “man.”  Using Max was seen as a way make gains against rival Pepsi, which had TV ads featuring pop singer Michael Jackson and also TV star Michael J. Fox, then in TV’s popular “Family Ties” show.  The Max Headroom campaign, said some advertising executives privately, was the most exciting Coca-Cola campaign since their popular “Coke Is It” series that featured actor Bill Cosby.  But Pepsi didn’t seem threatened.  “If you look at the Max Headroom commercials, they look very hip; they look like Pepsi commercials,” said Pepsi’s Stuart Ross in a November 1986 Los Angeles Times story.  “But even his (Max’s) considerable talents are not enough to help Coke.  You have to keep your product and your image fresh, too.”

Max Headroom Coke ad.
Max Headroom Coke ad.
     “New Coke” had been announced with great fanfare in late April 1985.  Coke and Max did TV ads, print ads, posters, t-shirts, buttons, and mugs.  For a time, Max was “Coking it up” – as one reviewer put it – practically everywhere, and the campaign and its related merchandise were generally well received.  New Coke the product, however, was another story.  Despite Max’s best promotional efforts, the product was a flop.  Some reports have Max continuing to appear in Coke ads through 1987-88.  The consumer outcry against New Coke, however, was loud and immediate.  Less than three months after its introduction, in mid-July 1985, Coke announced that the old version, which never went off the market, would return as “Coke Classic.”  New Coke, meanwhile, wasn’t immediately halted.  It was renamed Coke II in 1990, and continued to be manufactured in the U.S. for another decade or so until it was dropped sometime after 2002.  Reportedly, it continued to be sold abroad for a time thereafter.


Cinemax, Talk Show

     Max, meanwhile, went on to further TV fame and popular notice.  By the mid-1980s, there were a variety of Max Headroom stories appearing in the mainstream media, includ- ing those on Entertain- ment Tonight, CNN Head- line News, and NBC News.  Max did a two-part interview – via television screen, of course – on the David Letterman Show July 17, 1986.  That inter- view can be found on You Tube and other online video sources.  In August 1987, the Cinemax pay-TV cable channel in the U.S. aired the earlier U.K. Max Headroom video series under the title, The Original Max Talking Headroom Show, which included six episodes of his talk show interviews and music.  The original U.K.-made Max Headroom TV film was also released on home video in 1987.  The video package included a sweepstakes promotion featuring Max explaining the rules of the game at the beginning and end of the film.  Portions of that video are offered above to give readers unfamiliar with Max Headroom a sampling of his style and mannerisms as he appeared on screen in his various TV roles.  This video is edited to include only the “sweepstakes” portions of the tape with Max explaining the game’s rules.  Again, this video is offered only a sample for those who have never seen the TV show or know little of the character, as this clip does provide a good cross-section of his mannerisms and on-screen humor.


Max Headroom, TV star!
Max Headroom, TV star!
American Series

     In the U.S., the Max Headroom TV series began as a mid-season replacement in the spring of 1987, and was renewed for the fall season.  The spring season ran from March to May 1987 on Tuesday evenings in the 10-11 p.m. time slot.  The fall season ran August-October 1987 on Friday evenings in the 9-10 p.m. slot.  The show initially developed a loyal following of fans, but it wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea.  With its cyberpunk characters and its “set-in-the-future” storyline, Middle America didn’t always get it, and at least part of that market was needed for success.  Viewer ratings could not be sustained.  Max also had some stiff competition, as the show ran in the same time slot as CBS’s Top 20 hit, Dallas, and NBC’s Top 30 hit, Miami Vice. 

“Max Headroom”
U.S. Episodes

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Blipverts
Rakers
Body Banks
Security Systems
War
The Blanks
Academy
Deities
Grossberg’s Return
Dream Thieves
The Addiction Game
NeuroStim
Lessons
Baby Growbags
*
_____________________
*Never aired.

     As as result, Max Headroom was cancelled part-way into its first broadcast season, with leftover episodes aired in the spring of 1988.  But some felt the show’s biting satire – aimed at TV itself, and TV management in particular – was part of the reason for its abrupt demise.  In some quarters it was felt that ABC “suits” were among those being lampooned.  So, after only 14 episodes, two of which were never aired, Max was cancelled.  But the show did leave an impression.

     “Critics admired the series’ self-reflexivity, its willing- ness to pose questions about television networks and their often unethical and cynical exploitation of the ratings game,” observed Henry Jenkins in one synopsis of the show for the Museum of Broadcast Communications.  Max Headrooom also parodied game shows, political adver- tising, tele-evangelism, news coverage, and TV commer- cials.  At it’s peak, the Max Headroom show was seen on cable TV in 20 countries.  In England, meanwhile, Max had two best-selling books, one of which was titled Max Headroom’s Guide to Life.  There was also a range of Max Headroom merchandise, including T-shirts, which at the time and in some locations reportedly outsold Madonna T-shirts.  As Newsweek put in April 1987:  Max Headroom had become “the world’s first computer-simulated megastar.”

 

The Max Message

"Max Headroom" being interviewed by David Letterman, believed to be July 1986.
"Max Headroom" being interviewed by David Letterman, believed to be July 1986.
     But the Max Headroom show may well have been onto something else – offering a warning about the darker side of com- mercial advertising.  One of the show’s segments had been about “blipverts,” the compressed commercial messaging tech- nique – and the secret story Edison Carter had uncovered in Network 23′s files that almost cost him his life.  Carter had discovered that “blipverts” could have a very unpleasant adverse effect on viewers.  In fact, “blipverts” could over- stimulate viewers and cause some of them to literally explode – all in the full science-fiction sense of a good show, of course.  Still, in real world commercial advertising testing, there have been experiments and broadcasts of compressed commercial messages and subliminal advertising going on for some years.  And as well, Max Headroom was also a very direct and perhaps too effective skewer of corporate television power; taking on the “don’t-go-there” storyline that may well have contributed to its untimely ending.

Cover of the August 2010 DVD, "Max Headroom: The Complete Series."
Cover of the August 2010 DVD, "Max Headroom: The Complete Series."
     Some TV analysts, however, dismiss that notion and simply point to the show’s poor numbers: In early October 1987 the Max Headroom show was the lowest-rated prime-time series on the three networks, ranking 67th, with only a 12 percent share of the viewing audience.  So, by October 30, 1988, Max Head- room was summarily replaced with two half-hour sit coms filling out the hour slot – a returning comedy named Mr. Belvedere at 9 p.m., and a new sitcom about a young college professor, The Pursuit of Happiness, at 9:30.  Two left-over Max Headroom shows aired in the spring of 1988.

     Max Headroom, in any case, didn’t die after its 1987-88 short-circuited run at the prime-time American market.  As personality and show, Max Headroom went on to live another day in cable. In 1994-95, the series was re-shown on the Bravo cable TV channel.  In 1995-96, the U.S. series also ran on SyFy cable channel;  in 2002, it appeared on Tech-TV.  And today, the series lives on in various forms at any number of websites, some of which are listed below in “Sources.” 

"Maximum headroom" warning.
"Maximum headroom" warning.
     In August 2010, Max Headroom: The Complete Series, was issued on DVD in the U.S. and Canada.  That set also includes a roundtable discussion with many of the cast members and interviews with the writers and producers.

     To view more story choices at this website please visit the Home Page, the Archive, or any of the category options offered at the top left nav bar or in the dark blue area at the very bottom of this page.  Thanks for visiting.

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Date Posted: 16 November 2010
Last Update: 16 November 2010
Comments to:  jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Max Headroom, 1984-1988,”
PopHistoryDig.com, November 16, 2010.

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Sources, Links & Additional Information

Some Max Headroom Coca-Cola ad imagery.
Some Max Headroom Coca-Cola ad imagery.
Network 23's Edison Carter in the field.
Network 23's Edison Carter in the field.
Max Headroom also appeared on the July 1985 cover of Starburst magazine.
Max Headroom also appeared on the July 1985 cover of Starburst magazine.
Max is simply amazed by all this info!
Max is simply amazed by all this info!

Henry Jenkins, “Max Headroom,” Museum of Broadcast Communications, Museum.tv.

Max Headroom, a film by Steve Roberts, From an original idea by George Stone, Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel.  Directed by Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, produced by Peter Wagg; Executive Producer Terry Ellis, Chrysalis Visual Programming Ltd., for Channel 4.  This movie ran in the U.K. on Channel 4 – April, 4th 1985 @ 9.30-10.35 pm.  The film was used to introduced Max Headroom, Edison Carter, Theora Jones, Murray, Bryce Lynch and Blank Reg.  The U.K. television film was later rewritten and cut down to become the American TV series season opener, “Blipverts.”

John J. O’Connor, “TV Review; ‘Max Headroom Show’,” New York Times, October 30, 1985.

Kurt Loder, “Max Mania: A ‘Computer Generated’ Talk-Show Host, Max Headroom Has Become TV’s Latest Overnight Sensation.” Rolling Stone, August 28, 1986.

John J. O’Connor, “Cable’s Max Headroom, a True Media Creation,” New York Times, October 2, 1986.

Jube Shiver, Jr., “C-C-C-Catch The Wave. Max Headroom New TV Marketing Star Finds Success Is Going to His Head,” Los Angeles Times, November 17, 1986, Business, p. 1.

John J. O’Connor, ” ‘Max Headroom’ Series Premieres on ABC,” New York Times, Tuesday, March 31, 1987, p. C-18.

Harry F. Waters, Janet Huck & Vern E. Smith, “Mad About Max: The Making of a Video Cult,” Newsweek, Cover Story, April 20, 1987.

Terry Atkinson, “The Mixed-up World of Max Headroom Creators,” Los Angeles Times, May 5, 1987, Calendar/Entertainment, p. 1.

John J. O’Connor, TV Reviews, “Max Headroom as Host Of an Interview Show,” New York Times, August 6, 1987.

Terry Atkinson, “The Mixed-up World of Max Headroom Creators,” Los Angeles Times, May 5, 1987, Calendar/Entertainment, p. 1.

Diane Haithman, “N-N-N-NO M-M-MORE ‘M-M-MAX’,” Los Angeles Times, October 15, 1987, p. C-1.

Joe Struss, “Max Headroom Episode Guide,”  Iowa State.edu.

“20 Questions for Max Headroom,”Playboy, Holiday Anniversary Issue, January 1987.

“Max Headroom”(TV series), Wikipedia.org.

 ”Max Headroom”(character), Wikipedia.org.

 Bill Thompson stories at, Weird Science-Fantasy Web Pages.

 MmaxHeadroom webpage (some product sum- maries & episode description)

“Max Headroom Mega Post – TV/DVD Rips,” Rapid.org, October 31, 2009.

“Max on YouTube,” The Max Headroom Chron- icles.

“The Karl Lorimar Max Headroom Sweepstakes,” YouTube.com.

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