Anthony J. Pennings, PhD

WRITINGS ON DIGITAL STRATEGIES, ICT ECONOMICS, AND GLOBAL COMMUNICATIONS

Max Headroom’s Futuristic News Gathering

Posted on | November 5, 2013 | No Comments

One of my favorite TV shows from the 1980s was Max Headroom, a satire on network news done in a type of cyberpunk style. The show only lasted a year, but that is part of its mystique – it was too hot for a TV network to carry. Set in a dystopic near future, it showed a society suffering from harsh inequalities. One of the most interesting aspects of the show was its depiction of the future of journalism. It drew on the contemporary electronic news gathering (ENG) techniques of the time such as video and satellite feeds, and added more futuristic computers and artificial intelligences to help the main characters solve political and social problems.

The show featured a famous futuristic news reporter named Edison Carter who has a motorcycle accident trying to escape from some body-snatching baddies. He is knocked unconscious and is delivered to the head of his network’s research and development department, a teenage computer hacker/mad scientist who decides to digitize the reporter’s neural circuitry and download the data into a glitchy “talking headartificial intelligence – Max Headroom. When Max comes to “life,” that is the last thing he remembers – Edison hitting the parking garage gate that warns MAX HEADROOM 2.3M.

Max becomes the electronic alter ego of Edison Carter, played by Canadian actor Matt Frewer. He soon partners with the reporter as well as Network 23’s star controller Theora Jones, a beautiful hacker played by Amanda Pays. Max provides comic relief and often helps solve the episode’s central problem due to his stealthy infiltration capabilities. Some of my favorite capers included the times when Edison was accused of credit fraud (“that’s worse than murder”); everyone is addicted to a TV game show; and when a politician tried to rig an election. The latter is particularly interesting today because in the show, the politicians are linked to TV networks, and the one that has the highest ratings gets to have their politician in the driver’s seat. So in contemporary times, a politician connected to Fox or MSNBC would become the Prime Minister if their associated network were ahead in the ratings. This is the original British pilot Max Headroom: Twenty Minutes into the Future from Youtube, where Network 23’s new advertising technology inadvertently blows up inactive people (hey, it’s satire).

Max Headroom extrapolated some interesting trends in television journalism. Edison what was called a “platypus” reporter, multitasking with a multiple forms of equipment, particularly a rather large camcorder. By the 1980s, TV journalism had switched from using film to electromagnetic video camera. Film was difficult to transport and had to be developed before editing. Originally developed in the 1950s for television studios, portable video cameras with sufficient quality for electronic news gathering like the Betacam were available by the time Max Headroom was conceived.

Competition was always fierce for television news but the 24 news network introduced by CNN only intensified the need to get a news story on air faster. Edison’s camera has a direct uplink to a satellite and down to the network controller. Satellite news gathering also became popular during the 1980s. With the Apollo moon program came the global network of geosynchronous orbit satellites that were first conceived of by Arthur C. Clarke. That meant global capacity, and as early as 1962, the Olympics were broadcast from Tokyo. CNN was the first 24 hour news network and drew on the satellite expertise of Ted Turner’s WTBS, the first TV network with satellite distributed programming via RCA’s Satcom vehicle.

As satellites became stronger due to the advent of solid state solar power capacity, the corresponding earth stations got smaller. So small, in fact, that they could installed on moving vehicles. Soon news reporters were being shown live as wireless cameras and audio hookups to a mobile vehicle meant the signal could be transported via satellite to the TV studio. The TV show Nightline, hosted by Ted Koppel for 25 years pioneered the use of satellites for “remote interviewing” during the coverage of the Iranian hostage crisis after the US embassy in Tehran was overrun (See Argo, 2012).

The Network 23 news control room looks much like a modern military headquarters. Computers are able to access a variety of remote sensing satellites and local telemetry such as the floor plans of buildings. The controllers guide the reporters by accessing CCTV cameras and opening doors “literally” by cracking security systems. Max can also subvert security systems and get into difficult spots to help Carter.

Luckily for reporters, cameras have gotten a lot smaller, but reporters have rarely become network stars like Edison Carter. Instead, it has been the “talking heads”, much like Max Headroom, that achieved celebrity status. Max went on in “real life” to have his own show, interviewing celebrities like Jerry Hall, Michael Caine, and Sting, much like Rachel Maddow or Bill O’Reilly do on their TV shows.

Perhaps the real “platypus” reporters now are the public with our smartphone cameras, blogs, Twitter accounts and access to instant information sources like Wikipedia and through “Googling.” This trend is unconvincing at present to enact major social change, but who knows what the next “twenty minutes” might bring.

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AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is the Professor of Global Media at Hannam University in South Korea. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas and was on the faculty of New York University from 2002-2012. He also taught at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand and was a Fellow at the East-West Center in Hawaii in the 1990s.

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    Professor and Associate Chair at State University of New York (SUNY) Korea. Recently taught at Hannam University in Daejeon, South Korea. Moved to Austin, Texas in August 2012 to join the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University. Spent the previous decade on the faculty at New York University teaching and researching information systems, media economics, and strategic communications.

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