Max Headroom was originally a British character from a science fiction made-for-TV movie. This Ray Ban wearing digital revolutionary, introduced in 1984, was described as the world’s first computer generated TV host. Of course, he was mostly a synthesized version of actor Matt Frewer wearing prosthetic make-up. From his TV movie beginnings, Max received his own television show, first in England and then in America. By the late-80s America and the world found itself in a deluge of Max Headroom appearances, as he quickly became a spokesman for New Coke and showed up on everything from MTV to SESAME STREET. But that’s not quite what this story is about.
Back in the late-80s, television was a far different landscape than it is today. It was a time when networks relied mainly on cable broadcast feeds or satellite signals to beam their programs into American homes. During this period, broadcast signal intrusions were an extremely popular form of “hacking”. Broadcast signal intrusion is the act of hijacking a station’s signal by broadcasting on the same frequency as the station. The task requires a great deal of equipment, as well as a lot of television engineering know-how. Once the hijacker has the signal they can then replace it with their own audio and video feed which they then send on to the viewer.
On November 22, 1987, someone hijacked the signal of two television stations in Chicago and broadcast their own video signal. The first station was Chicago’s WGN-TV which saw its signal hijacked around 9 pm during a sports report. The intrusion lasted 25 seconds. Viewers witnessed the screen go black for 15 seconds, then return with the strange video image of a man wearing a Max Headroom mask and sunglasses bouncing about in front of a corrugated metal backdrop. The video had no audio and lasted ten more seconds before studio engineers quickly switched to another frequency, returning the station back to a confused sports anchor who, like everyone else watching, had no idea what he had just seen.
Around 11:15pm the hijacker was back, this time taking over the signal of WTTW, a Chicago PBS station that was broadcasting the DOCTOR WHO serial “HORROR OF FANG ROCK”. The intrusion began as static then quickly switched over to the same MAX HEADROOM mask-wearing pirate that had taken over WGN’s signal earlier in the evening. The hijacked broadcast began in the middle of a rant about sports broadcaster Chuck Swirsky, calling him a “fricking liberal”. The man in the mask then went on to scream and laugh as he shouted New Coke’s slogan “Catch the wave” while drinking a Pepsi. The man then went into nonsensical rants about television shows, he sang bits of songs, flipped off the camera, then held up a sequin glove like Michael Jackson’s and said “My brother is wearing the other one”. After putting the glove on he exclaimed, “it’s dirty! It’s like you got bloodstains on it!” Afterwards, the picture cut to a shot of the man bent over and exposing his butt. At that moment, a woman enters and begins spanking him with a flyswatter. The entire bizarre event lasted 90 seconds. To the viewers at home, it was probably the strangest event they had ever seen on television. Although I’d like to believe a few of them thought it was part of the DOCTOR WHO program they were originally watching.
This was by no means the first time anyone had ever interrupted a television signal, though frequency hijacking was far more common on radio where success was relatively easier to obtain. On November 26, 1977, an ITN bulletin on the UK’s Southern Television was interrupted by audio from an alien visitor warning the human race of an upcoming catastrophic event.
Then on April 27, 1986, HBO’s satellite feed out of Long Island was interrupted by a man calling himself “Captain Midnight”. The interruption, lasting about five minutes, was seen by viewers on the East Coast during a broadcast of FALCON AND THE SNOWMAN. The pirate broadcast consisted of color bars with the text over top. It read:
FROM CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT
NO WAY !
[SHOWTIME/MOVIE CHANNEL BEWARE!]
Unlike the Max Headroom or ITN intrusion, the perpetrator was caught when an anonymous tip led investigators to John MacDougall. At the time, MacDougall was working at Central Florida Teleport, a company which uplinks shows to satellites. After overseeing a broadcast of PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE, MacDougall moved Teleport’s dish towards Galaxy 1, the satellite which carried HBO. MacDougall was upset over HBO’s decision to scramble its signal and charge dish owners a $12.95 subscription fee. MacDougall received a $5,000 fine an one year probation for his act of protest.
Nowhere was signal intrusion more prevalent in the 1970s and 80s than in the USSR. Citizens of the Soviet Union were desperate for non-government broadcasting. Although mostly done as radio broadcasts, many citizens launched their own illegal broadcasts. Some did it as an attempt to provide non-government programming, while others used it for a quick prank. Such was the case of a young man in the city of Kaluga who broadcast an announcement in 1966 that the USSR and the United States were in the middle of a nuclear war. By the mid-70s, so many pirate broadcasters were operating in the Soviet Union that hotlines were set-up so that people could inform authorities about violators.
Signal intrusion has by no means gone away and incidents of satalite signal hijacking can be found as recently as 2016, when Israeli viewers watching HAAH HAGADOL found their show interrupted by a massage from Hamas. Also, on more than one occasion, Disney’s cable network feed as found itself the victim of intrusion when in 2007 the show HANDY MANNY was replaced with hardcore pornography, and then again in 20012 when a similar switch was made during a broadcast of LILO & STITCH.
Soon after the Max Headroom hijacking, the FCC launched a full investigation into the event, stating that the perpetrators were looking at a $10,000 fine and one year in prison. To this day, those responsible have never been found.