The entire 80s cyberpunk Max Headroom TV series is available today on DVD, and one of the pleasures of rewatching the series is discovering how many things it got right about the future.
For those who don’t know the premise of the 1987-88 series, where every episode begins with the tagline “twenty minutes into the future,” here’s a quick recap. Investigative reporter Edison Carter works for Network 23 in an undefined cyberpunk future, where 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. Edison’s controller is Theora, who accesses information online – everything from apartment layouts to secret security footage – to help him with investigations.
They’re aided in their investigations by a sarcastic AI named Max Headroom, built by geek character Bryce and based on Edison’s memories. Sometimes producer Murray (Jeffrey Tambor) helps out, as does Reg, a pirate TV broadcaster known as a “blank” because he’s erased his identity from corporate databases.
In the world of Max Headroom, it’s 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 series was produced by a British company for American television, and the character Max Headroom also starred in commercials and was a VJ for a shortlived music video show.
There are many reasons to watch this show, from its great writing to its straight-outta-Neuromancer feel, but the best reason is that it’s still managed to stay relevant over two decades after it was canceled. And that’s because the show got so many predictions right.
Max Headroom predicted instant-ratings media
In the scene above, from the episode “Blipverts,” you can see how reporters of the future do their jobs – and how their success is measured in instant ratings. This is the first episode, before Edison gets paired up with controller Theora, so we see him with his previous controller being guided through an apartment building to get his story. (The story is that blipverts are blowing people up.) This is media done blogger-style, with one reporter dropping into the scene, doing his own video, and feeding it directly back to the network where it’s going out live.
I love the detail at the end of the clip, where Murray gets a call from the head honchos at the network, telling him to pull the story. We catch a glimpse of how Murray is tracking the popularity of Edison’s show minute-by-minute against the shows on other networks.
This is exactly how most media works online, where audience-tracking services can give you a second-by-second update on how many people are viewing your video or your livestream. In fact, if you look in the upper right hand corner of this post, you can see how many people have viewed it. You are living in the Max Headroom future right now.
Max Headroom predicted how big networks would rip off YouTube celebrities
In another episode called “Rakers,” Edison investigates an underground sport called Raking. Kids have created DiY motorized skateboards, and engage in a kind of combat-racing which results in a lot of injuries and deaths (hence Edison’s investigation). What we see in the clip above are the network execs talking about how they should create a Raking show because a pirated video cube (basically, a YouTube equivalent) has been making the rounds and the numbers on it are astounding. And like any good social network of today, Network 23 wants to make sure to suck up gambling dollars too – it’s as if Network 23 is going to turn Rakers into a TV show and a Zynga game at the same time.
As a sidenote, another way that this show seems eerily prescient is in its depiction of how self-obsessed the media has become. Nearly every single episode of the show turns into a story of how Edison has stumbled into an investigation of corruption at his own company. Network 23 is broadcasting the deadly blipverts via its advertising sponsor Zik Zak; the network is also about to option the deadly Rakers show; and in later episodes it turns out the company is in bed with a corrupt security company, is deliberately getting people addicted to its shows, and is helping to arrest blanks. When Edison isn’t investigating his own company, he’s investigating Network 66, which is run by a former Network 23 executive.
Max Headroom predicted 4Chan, pirate video, and media hacking
I love the scene above, which takes place in the slums outside the city where Network 23 is located. The TVs heaped everywhere are a constant part of the show’s landscape. Here we meet Blank Reg, an old punk who runs a pirate TV show out of his trailer.
In this episode, called “Security Systems,” Reg helps Edison and his scooby gang to get through some serious “ice” (William Gibson’s term for security systems, repurposed here). Because the whole show is about television, all the hacks are signal hacks rather than computer network hacks. One of the major things the show got wrong about the future was not including any kind of internet. So Bryce is trying to hack using different kinds of broadcast signals, instead of sneaking in via an internet connection.
Still, in this scene and many others in the show, we see an entire outlaw media culture: the blanks are like Anonymous, completely off the data grid yet using it for political ends (or just for griefing); and Reg is playing pirated videos on his TV station. Of course, in a world where television signals can kill or control your mind, media hacking is pretty serious business indeed.
Max Headroom predicted ad-driven news and violent reality TV
I included the clip above, from the episode “War,” because it depicts this little side-alley in the Max Headroom universe that’s utterly genius. It’s the Ad Market, a stock market where people buy and sell ad time on all the television networks. This is during a global sweeps week, and we watch as people frantically buy and sell time – though Network 23 is losing here, because they’re showing dog videos on the news (apparently Max Headroom wasn’t able to predict lolcats).
What we’re also seeing in this clip is a content packager who has arranged for some terrorists to blow up some buildings to jack up ratings on the network that has an exclusive partnership to air the terrorists’ activities. And you also get a glimpse of the famous “camera rifle,” because a Network 23 reporter is filming the terrorists, too. Love that her magazine is a videotape, and that the record button is a trigger.
Once again, in this episode, the reporters and media become part of the story. Edison winds up investigating how their rival network is staging terrorist acts in order to boost their ratings. It’s reality television, only just a little bit more savage and violent than it is today.
But wait there’s more
That’s right – I’ll be reviewing the second season of Max Headroom next week, and talking about what made Max Headroom a major media icon. So t-t-tune in next week, for more M-M-Max Headroom! In the meantime, buy something from Zik Zak!
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