According to this article, cable TV channels are using time compression in order to cram in a few more commercials per hour. Newsflash: This is nothing new. Back in the 1990’s, a similar flap developed over the exact same practice. But back then it was easy to spot. The soundtrack sounded like The Chipmunks. However, the crude analog technology of 20 years ago is no match for the digital signal processing of today. Not only do they utilize frame-dropping to make the sped up video less obvious, the audio track is extracted, accelerated, then pitch-shifted downward. The result: A 10% faster program, which frees up an extra 2 – 3 minutes per hour for more commercials. The short lived TV series ‘Max Headroom’ took this idea, and turned it completely around. Instead of speeding up the program, why not speed up the commercials? To a network executive, the most terrifying weapon in the viewer’s arsenal is the remote control. Without eyeballs on the screen, there goes that summer house in the Hamptons! But what if you could compress the time it takes a commercial to run, say, turn a 30 second spot into 3 seconds, this would put an end to channel switching.
Matt Frewer, in heavy makeup and rubber prosthetics, played a computer generated talk show host on BBC TV a full 2 years before the series was created. Cinemax produced a US version of ‘The Max Headroom Show’, and Coca-Cola made him a pitchman for the ill-fated ‘New Coke’. Not even Max could save that one. The computer generated graphics, crude by today’s standards, were fascinating to watch at the time. Max was showing up everywhere, appearing on Letterman and MTV, interrupting music videos, and cracking wise. Today, we would say he had gone viral. Garry Trudeau, creator of the comic strip ‘Doonesbury’, did a political parody of the character by combining the concept with then-president Ronald Reagan, to produce Ron Headrest, the world’s first electronically simulated politician. When Reagan expressed reservations about the idea, his handlers told him, “It’s television, sir. Nobody will know the difference.” It was decided that the ubiquitous Max needed a full-fledged series, so the Brits produced a pilot. Picked up by ABC, it was set in a futuristic dystopia ruled by an oligarchy of television networks. At the beginning of each show they flashed a subtitle: “20 Minutes Into the Future”.
‘Live and Direct’ video reporter Edison Carter (Frewer, without the makeup) stumbles upon a serious side effect caused by ‘Blipverts’, thirty second commercials compressed down to three seconds:
Unfortunately, they caused certain viewers to explode. Literally.
Bryce Lynch, boy genius and Network 23 tech expert, explains why this is happening:
Along the way to uncovering the truth, Carter becomes injured, and fearing he is about to expire, his brain is downloaded into a computer. The software is a bit glitchy, however, as the only thing that had ever been downloaded before was a parrot (“It squawks!”). The program creates Max Headroom, an irreverent virtual telepresence that shares Edison’s desire for justice and truth. After the Network abruptly yanks him off the air (he was getting too close), Carter rails, “Since when is news considered entertainment?” Murray, his controller, bemusedly responds, “Since it was invented?” The show proved to be too much for viewers, who stayed away in droves. After only 14 episodes, they pulled the plug.
The plot is exposed, the truth is revealed, and Max Headroom, Edison Carter’s unhinged avatar, takes it upon himself to populate the Network 23 airwaves with biting sarcasm. In the final scene, he turns to the audience and asks, “How can you tell when a network executive is lying?…His lips move.”