The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Thursday, March 11, 2004

Ah, '80s nostalgia. MediaPost's Real Media Riff reminisces about the late, great "Max Headroom":

For those of you who're too young to remember and too old to recall, the show's storyline was set in a not-too-distant future that is eerily like the one we are living in now. Can you guess what year it took place? Yep, it was 2004, when the show's protagonist Edison Carter (an intrepid reporter, not unlike the Riff) uncovers a plot by corporate America to begin airing "blipverts," compressed TV commercials that would be played so fast, that viewers wouldn't be able to react quickly enough to zap them.

While we are sure this is a concept that may have actually been tested somewhere, sometime - and for all we know, may be going on right now - the "Max Headroom" version of blipverts had at least one nettlesome drawback: they caused TV viewers to spontaneously explode. Obviously, this would be bad for the business of most major marketers, and would also wreak havoc on Nielsen's sample, (we can only imagine the weighting scheme associated with this one), but at least it would be an ingenious solution to digital video recorders: "If you zap our ads, we'll blow you to smithereens."

Thank goodness, our 2004 isn't exactly like "Max Headroom's" 2004. In the TV version, books were illegal, because they kept people from watching TV. TV sets were provided to the poor to keep them occupied and docile. And it was even illegal for manufacturers to install "off switches" on TV sets. No, that's nothing like our society today, much to the chagrin of Madison Avenue. If anything, it seems there are forces afoot that would like to make it illegal to install "on switches" on TV sets.

As far-fetched as blipverts might seem, the notion of short, fractionalized TV spots apparently is not. The ANA panel kicked around scenarios that would bust the :30's hold on advertising formats, with a range of longer and shorter form options.

Definitely a show that was ahead of it's time, and yet firmly a part of it. In my mind, anyway, Max Headroom is an iconic '80s symbol, probably as much for the Pepsi and MTV ads he did as for the TV series.

Pegging the show's setting in the future year of 2004 involves a little bit of conjecture. Officially, the show's storyline never explicitly revealed the exact year; indeed, the show's subtitle was "Twenty Minutes Into The Future", a purposefully vague and quirky premise, intended to convey the mood that the future depicted, while absurdist, was not so very far off. However, piecing together some plot elements from the original UK pilot, mainly the age of one of the protaganists, yields the year 2004.

I had a Max Headroom t-shirt back in the day. I even brought it with me to college here in St. Pete. I managed to lose it my freshman year.