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First Computer-Generated TV Host – Max Headroom – 1985 AD

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First Computer-Generated TV Host

Annabel Jankel (b. 1955), Rocky Morton (b. 1955)

This is the world of Max Headroom, a digitized manifestation of fictional star reporter Edison Carter, who, in the film and sci-fi series, was seriously injured by his employer in a botched cover-up. When Network 23’s technical boy-genius, Bryce Lynch, scans Carter’s brain into the company’s computer, the result is a hyperactive, eccentric, somewhat sentient avatar that pontificates about social order and topics of little consequence, such as the IQ of a moth.

British directors Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton conceived of Max when they were hired to find ways of linking music videos together for England’s Channel 4. They started with a movie, Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future, and expanded it to a Channel 4 show that ran for four seasons. Max quickly became one of the most popular television personalities in England. Max also showed up in the United States in a third series that was broadcast in 1987 and 1988.

Max Headroom’s title character became a cultural phenomenon and 1980s pop icon, appearing in Coca-Cola® advertisements and an episode of Sesame Street in 1987. Played by Canadian actor Matt Frewer, the real Max was definitely not computer generated: Frewer required four hours of makeup and prosthetic application each time he played Max on TV and in endorsement deals, guest appearances on Late Night with David Letterman and other shows, and simultaneous covers on Newsweek and MAD magazine in 1987.

In all of its various incarnations, Max Headroom wrestled with issues surrounding commercial advertising and news manipulation in the service of high ratings and revenue. The show used technology and the logic of an artificially intelligent personality to paint a dark picture of society, where standards of integrity and decency have given way to an insatiable appetite for salacious reporting and entertainment.

Although somewhat campy, Max Headroom was avant-garde in proposing that a person’s brain could be scanned into a computer and produce a (somewhat) sentient being. Max Headroom’s pedigree tapped into a deeper set of questions that resonated with the general public, including how far technology could be taken.

SEE ALSO Metropolis (1927)

Matt Frewer as Max Headroom, the computer-generated television host who became a pop-culture icon in the 1980s.

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