The Definitive Oral History Of “Max Headroom”: From Cyberpunk Icon To MTV Host Selling Coke

By on February 4, 2017

Thirty years after the show’s TV premiere, The Verge have posted a terrific oral history of 1980s cyberpunk icon “Max Headroom,” who started as the snarky “virtual” star of a dystopian science fiction TV movie satirizing mass media but went on to host music videos and pitch cans of Coke.

The Verge‘s Bryan Bishop talked with the writers, directors, producers, actors, make-up artists, and network executives that helped bring “Max Headroom” to life.

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Starring actor Matt Frewer in the title role, the prescient Max Headroom seemed incredibly ahead of its time, often Orwellian in the way the writers were able to foresee how life would be for us decades into the future, particularly in regards to things like the internet and e-mail.

That’s not all. In Max Headroom‘s world, all media is ad-supported and ratings rule all. Reporters carry “rifle cameras,” gun-shaped video cameras, which are wirelessly linked back to a “controller” in the newsroom. It’s also illegal for televisions to have an off switch.

Terrorists are reality TV stars, and super-fast subliminal advertisements called blipverts have started to blow people up by overstimulating the nervous systems of people who are sedentary and eat too much fat.

The show even predicted how big networks would rip off YouTube celebrities.

The pilot produced as a stand-alone Max Headroom movie in the UK, then reinvented as a series for ABC.

Here’s an excerpt, and be sure to head over there to check out all of the photos too:

On Thursday, April 4th, 1985, a blast of dystopian satire hit the UK airwaves. Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future was a snarky take on media and corporate greed, told through the eyes of investigative journalist Edison Carter (Matt Frewer) and his computer-generated alter-ego: an artificial intelligence named Max Headroom.

Set in a near-future where global corporations control all media and citizens are hopelessly addicted to dozens of TV channels, the movie follows Carter — working for the mysterious Network 23 — as he discovers that network executives have created a form of subliminal advertising known as “blipverts” that can actually kill. While tracking the story, Carter is flung into a barrier marked “Max. Headroom — 2.3m.” Desperate to maintain ratings with its star reporter, the network enlists a young hacker to download Carter’s mind and create a virtual version of the journalist. But things don’t go quite right. The result: the stuttering, sarcastic Max.

20 Minutes into the Future kicked off an extensive franchise, and Max became a singular ’80s pop culture phenomenon that represented everything wonderful and horrible about the decade. Max hosted music video shows; Max interviewed celebrities; Max hawked New Coke; Max Headroom became US network television’s very first cyberpunk series. Max was inescapable — and then almost just as quickly as he had appeared, he was gone.

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On the evening of November 22, 1987, a television signal hijacking regular programming occurred in Chicago, Illinois. The intruder was successful in interrupting two broadcast television stations within the course of three hours, wearing a Max Headroom mask.

It’s an example of what is known in the television business as broadcast signal intrusion. Neither the hijacker nor any known accomplices have ever been found, caught or identified, which leaves the incident unsolved.

This blog was originally posted in 2015.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
  • slave138

    Max Headroom was my favorite TV show when I was younger and is still one of the best cyberpunk shows ever made.

    “Asking is just polite demanding”