The creative staff of ABC's futuristic "Max Headroom" series was recently at work on an episode called "Families," an ironic study of the television ratings system that questioned a network's slavish reliance on an absurdly small sample to reflect the tastes of the American public.
That episode will not air, however. Four weeks into the new season, the critically acclaimed "Max Headroom" was canceled Wednesday--because of ratings.
ABC said "Max Headroom," which aired for six episodes last season and then was picked up for fall, will have its final broadcast Friday night. The series generated only mediocre ratings last season and the numbers were even lower this term. The Lorimar production was the lowest-rated prime-time series on the three networks last week, ranking 67th with only a 12% share of the viewing audience.
As of Oct. 30, it will be replaced in the rugged time slot opposite CBS' "Dallas" and NBC's "Miami Vice" by the returning comedy "Mr. Belvedere" at 9 p.m. and a new sitcom called "The Pursuit of Happiness" at 9:30. The latter stars Paul Provenza as a just-turned-30 idealist who ends a decade-long, cross-country trek to become a professor at a small Philadelphia college.
Despite ABC's cancellation, Max Headroom is not dead, executive producer Peter Wagg said Wednesday. Max will continue to be a spokesman for Coca-Cola, a feature film and an animated series are being considered and his cable-TV talk show will probably continue as well, he said.
"He's a very healthy character," Wagg said.
The character of Max Headroom, a computer-generated figure who comments humorously on the modern world, had its roots in a British TV movie that was created to introduce him as the host of a talk/music-video show in England. The talk show came to the United States via cable television, won a cult following that led to his use as a Coca-Cola spokesman and eventually inspired the ABC series, which took up where the earlier TV movie had left off.
Headroom and his human counterpart, Edison Carter (both portrayed by Matt Frewer), lived in a TV-dominated future where it was illegal to turn off a TV set and ratings were monitored by the second.
Wagg, who was involved in the show's creation and re-located from England to Los Angeles to produce the ABC series about a year ago, said his staff was informed of ABC's decision Tuesday afternoon. "I think it is rather tragic, isn't it?" he said. "You might start getting me choked up in a minute.
"I think it's hard the morning after to come up with an answer, but I think a lot of people feel very sad this morning," Wagg continued. "And not just people connected with the show, but people in the (TV) industry.
"The sadness is that any time a producer with a great idea that is slightly different, that is challenging, that is possibly slightly ahead of its time, he will get turned down, because they'll say, ' "Max" didn't work.' "
Wagg said he rarely considered ratings when producing "Max Headroom." "If you allowed yourself to overreact to ratings, you get into this 'Max Headroom' loop--what's happening today (the cancellation) is the subject of our shows," he said.
"Max Headroom" episodes that had already been completed or were in the works for this season--but which won't be seen now--included "Lessons," about censorship in education; "Baby Grow Bags," about futuristic childbirth methods, and "Neurostem," about an advertising device that directly stimulates the brain stem to make the individual want to rush out and buy the product--thus eliminating the need for TV advertising.
Wagg said Brandon Stoddard, president of ABC Entertainment, never had a problem with the show's constant lampooning of network television. "Brandon Stoddard would say to me 'Don't hold back'--and the Standards and Practices people were always saying 'Oh, no, look what those 'Max Headroom' people have done!' " Wagg said. "We had continuing battles, which were rather good fun."
Wagg said he hopes "Headroom," like a few other shows before it, can be revived by viewer protests. "There is a place for 'Dallas,' and a place for 'Johnny Carson,' but I've always thought there should be a place for 'Max Headroom' as well," he said. "As of today, we'll never really know."