“Two things scare me. The first is getting hurt. But that’s not nearly as scary as the second, which is losing.”~ Lance Armstrong
I honestly had never heard of this incident until just a few days ago. I have no recollection of it happening when it did happen either.
For those of you who do not know the infamous character in the image, it is a British fictional AI who was introduced to the public in 1984 named Max Headroom.
Max Headroom was portrayed by actor Matt Frewer and became the world’s first computer-generated TV hosts. Known for its quick wit, stuttering, and computer-distorted voice.
Max Headroom even was a spokesperson for New Coke when their “Catch the Wave!” campaign was released.
So then on the 22nd of November 1987 in Chicago, Illinois… everything was calm and peaceful. WGN-TV was broadcasting their 9:00 PM primetime news program to their viewers.
Suddenly the signal was cut off. A couple of seconds later, there was an image of an unknown and unidentified person in a Max Headroom mask bobbing their head back and forth. There was no clear audio other than an annoying loud buzzing sound. If there was anything that was being said, it was never heard. And almost thirty seconds later it was gone and WGN-TV had returned to broadcasting. The signal intrusion had ended.
WGN-TV engineers changed their frequency of their link to the transmitter and cut off the pirated broadcast.
The entire incident left sports journalist Dan Roan searching for an explanation. And still confused, he said “Well, if you are wondering what’s happened. So am I.”
Later on the same evening, sometime after 11:00 PM, Chicago’s PBS television station WTTW-TV was broadcasting the Dr. Who episode “Horror of Fang Rock” when the hijacker struck again.
Around 11:15 PM the signal faded to black and the person dressed as Max Headroom was back. But this time, audio was available even though it was manipulated. Most of the things that were said were inaudible. The rest of it was senseless ramblings and profanity (in 1987’s FCC standards) and singing.
This hijacking lasted longer than the WGN intrusion.
One of the statements made was an incorrect “product placement” of Pepsi-Cola, rather than Coca-Cola in which Max Headroom was the spokesperson, the man in the mask blurted out the slogan and laughed like a maniac before turning his verbal intentions to moaning and psychotic screaming.
Several other props were broadcast including one glove and a sex toy before things turned even stranger and darker during the hijacked broadcast.
The picture cut to a shot of a man’s torso and exposed buttocks. The Max Headroom mask was apparently removed and shown in front of the camera and the howling and screaming continued with “They’re coming to get me!”
Another accomplice was in view standing behind the exposed buttocks wearing a French maid uniform. Its reported that second person said “Bend over, bitch” and a spanking session began that was carried out by a simple household flyswatter and the occasional other hand on to that person’s backside. The screaming continued.
Then suddenly the transmission went black. And then the episode of Dr. Who returned to viewers in progress.
The entire broadcast lasted much longer. Close to a minute and a half in length.
WTTW Technicians attempted in vain to do something about the transmission, but were unable to stop it as WGN-TV was able to just a couple hours earlier. The Max Headroom figure never appeared again.
And the most interesting point of this story: Those responsible were never caught. To this day, the pirating case remains unsolved.
It was not the first time that a television station had been hijacked and it would not be the last.
In April 1986, HBO was hacked in by someone calling themselves Captain Midnight. But Captain Midnight was caught and brought to trial. He plead guilty as he feared a lengthy jail sentence and was given probation and a fine. Captain Midnight would be identified as John R. MacDougall, a Florida business owner and electrical engineer.
Twenty months before the Max Headroom Piracy Incident, was Captain Midnight. He was unable to be stopped and his intrusion lasted for several minutes before he just simply ended the transmission and returned HBO to his programming.
For those of you wondering, $12.95 a month in 1985 US money would equal almost $30 a month in 2013.
But the Captain Midnight HBO hijacking was almost two full years before the absolutely creepy Max Headroom piracy.
The fact that it remains unsolved is somewhat of a fascination. And a creepy one at that as many still are trying to decipher the audio to make sure we all know what the person was rambling about because none of the statements that were audible make sense from one to the other. Throwing a Pepsi-Cola can, using a sex toy on their finger, and singing a 1950’s cartoon theme song is just irrational behavior and makes no sense.
It could be that the person or persons responsible were either on drugs or drunk when they interrupted with their broadcast. And even though it lasted a creepy minute and a half, it is almost as if they knew to cut off the transmission to avoid being detected by the very same satellite that the illegally took over.
So who are they? Where are they?
I would hate to be the bearer of negativity but it is a theory that I have that since this intrusion happened so long ago that the person or persons responsible may no longer be living. It is just one theory. Another theory is that the person or persons responsible got the hell out of Dodge to avoid capture and arrest and have been living unnoticed in society and they have never attempted the same action again.
Yet I wonder if any good fan-fiction writing has evolved because of this??
Other signal intrusions include 1977 in England with a direct and clear message. Otherwise known as The Vrillion Intrusion. Someone overran the signal to a UHF television station.
May 2007 in Lincroft, New Jersey a Comcast feed of “Handy Manny” was interrupted by hard-core pornography. An investigation took place but authorities never released their findings.
February 2009, Comcast’s NBC affliate of KVOA’s broadcast of Superbowl XLIII between the Arizona Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Steelers was interrupted during the fourth quarter and a ten second transmission of the hard-core pornography film called “Wild Cherries 5” took its place. But the piracy was only seen in certain portions of Arizona.
April 2012, three minutes of gay hard-core pornography was broadcast during a morning news program on CHCH-TV in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. The footage was spliced into the feed of CHCH-TV.
Then on the 11th of February 2013, the EAS (Emergency Alert System) Great Falls, Montana CBS affiliate KRTV-TV been hacked with an audible message warning viewers that “dead bodies are rising from their graves”.
Later the same night in Marquette, Michigan, the same type of hijacking and reference to a “zombie invasion” was made over the EAS systems of ABC affiliate WBUP-TV and PBS member station WNMU-TV during primetime programming. Shortly afterwards, PBS affiliate KENW-TV of Portales, New Mexico was struck with a similar hacking incident, repeating similar information regarding zombies; however, this led to the arrest of the hacker of the four television stations.
And most disturbing of all:
September 18, 2012, the Disney Channel once again was interrupted on the Dish Network, replacing 6 minutes of “Lilo & Stitch” with a portion of a hardcore pornographic movie. The incident was reported.
There are other incidents of hijacking throughout history that have happened in random cities across the United States of America.
So not only was analog television hacked as it was in the 1980’s, but even satellite and cable television also has been pirated. Some have been found and prosecuted while others remain a totally dark and strange mystery.
I would love to see the person or persons responsible for the 1987 Max Headroom Piracy Intrusion come public and yes even morbidly, I would love to see them take a bow and talk about their experience.
Sadly because of the fear of arrest and imprisonment and fines, I don’t think that its going to happen.
Clips of some of the intrusions listed above, including Max Headroom can be found by searching on YouTube.