Captain Midnight (HBO)
Message seen in 1986
|Date||April 27, 1986|
|Participants||John R. MacDougall|
|Outcome||Fine and probation|
John R. MacDougall (born c. 1961), also known as Captain Midnight, is a Florida electronic engineer and business owner who jammed HBO's satellite signal in April 1986 to broadcast a message protesting their rates for satellite dish owners.
In the mid-1980s, controversy erupted in the cable programming world as media companies that owned pay television channels began scrambling their programming and charging fees to home satellite dish owners who accessed the same satellite signals that cable operators received. Many satellite dish owners were forced to purchase descrambling equipment at a cost of hundreds of dollars, in addition to paying monthly or annual subscription fees to cable programming providers. Programming costs for home dish owners were often higher than fees paid by cable subscribers, despite dish owners being responsible for owning and servicing their own equipment.
When HBO scrambled its signal in January 1986, it offered subscriptions to home dish owners for $12.95 per month, which was either equal to or slightly higher than what cable subscribers paid. HBO advised viewers that purchasing a descrambler for $395 would allow them to continue watching their service. Satellite dish owners began protests over scrambling saying that clear signals from cable channels would become difficult to receive.
On April 20, 1986, one week before the jamming, MacDougall imposed a color bar test pattern which was superimposed on HBO's signal.
On April 27, 1986, at 12:32 a.m. Eastern Time, MacDougall, a satellite television dealer in Ocala, Florida, was working at Central Florida Teleport, a company that uplinks services to satellites. He was overseeing the uplink of the movie Pee-wee's Big Adventure as part of the evening's programming for the now-defunct pay-per-view network People's Choice (which used Central Florida Teleport's facilities). At the end of his shift, he swung the dish back into its storage position, which aimed it at the location of Galaxy 1, the satellite that carried HBO.
As a protest against the introduction of high fees and scrambling equipment, he transmitted a signal onto the satellite which overrode HBO's telecast of the movie The Falcon and the Snowman (which had begun two minutes earlier) for 4½ minutes. The text message which appeared on the sets of HBO subscribers across the eastern half of the country read:
FROM CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT
NO WAY !
[SHOWTIME/MOVIE CHANNEL BEWARE!]
Hughes Communications threatened to shut down HBO's satellite signal or alter the satellite's course with executives believing the hacker was a domestic terrorist. HBO engineers reacted by increasing the transmission power of their satellites to 2,000 watts. Engineers eventually powered down their satellite fearing further damage would be incurred.
HBO contacted the Federal Communications Commission and announced that the hijacker would face prosecution. The hijacking raised concerns over satellite-borne communications, including that data transmitted by business and military would become potential targets.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation was called in to investigate the incident. They determined which Teleport uplink site had the capability to override the HBO signal. That narrowed it down to two uplink sites. Then they used the character generator graphics to determine which one. They then knew the operator who was on duty at that time. The FBI learned an accountant overheard MacDougall at a payphone and gave out a license plate number of a car owned by MacDougall.
Galaxy I carried HBO on Channel 23 at a rate of 125 watts with relay signals sent out at 6,385 megahertz. Mother Jones Magazine determined that MacDougall could have potentially taken over the signals of three satellites. The first was by taking over the network feed of CBS had he positioned his satellite at the Telstar 301 satellite, operated by AT&T, turned at 6,065 megahertz. The second was by taking over the foreign language feed of the Voice of America network by aiming his satellite at 72 degrees west longitude. The final theorized hijacking would be aiming his satellite at 100 degrees west longitude, above the Galapagos Islands, with a frequency setting of 293.375 megahertz thereby jamming the signal of United States Navy satellite Fleetsatcom 1.
Arrest and prosecution
After media pressure forced the Federal Communications Commission to act, MacDougall was charged and plea bargained a $5,000 fine and was placed on one year's probation. MacDougall chose the name "Captain Midnight" from a movie he had recently seen, On the Air Live with Captain Midnight (not associated with a popular Captain Midnight radio show of the 1940s).
- The Associated Press (April 28, 1986). "VIDEO PIRATE INTERRUPTS HBO". The New York Times. Retrieved May 20, 2014.
- Lyman, Rick; Borowski, Neill (April 29, 1986). "On The Trail Of 'Captain Midnight'". Philly. Retrieved May 20, 2014.
- Jean, Charlie; Reidy, Chris (July 23, 1986). "Ocala Man Dished Up That Warning For HBO". Orlando Sentinel. Retrieved May 20, 2014.
- "The Story of Captain Midnight". Archived from the original on 2007-01-28. Retrieved 2007-08-03.
- DeFino 2014, p. 58.
- Goldberg, Donald (October 1986). "Captain Midnight, HBO, And World War III". Mother Jones.
- Byers, Jim; Cramer, Jerome (May 12, 1986). "Captain Midnight's Sneak Attack". Time.
- Williams 2010, p. 552-553.
- "John R. MacDougall Bio". Archived from the original on 2008-03-18. Retrieved 2010-03-16.
- DeFino, Dean J. (2014). The HBO Effect. New York City, USA: Bloomsbury Academic. ISBN 978-1-4411-8043-8.
- Williams, Colin P. (2010). Explorations in Quantumn Computing. Pasadena, California: California Institute of Technology. ISBN 978-1-84628-887-6.