Captain Midnight broadcast signal intrusion

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Captain Midnight
Message seen in 1986
Time 0532 UTC
Date April 27, 1986 (1986-04-27)
Venue HBO
Location Ocala, Florida, U.S.
Participants John R. MacDougall
Outcome Fine and probation

On April 27, 1986, American electrical engineer and business owner John R. MacDougall, using the pseudonym Captain Midnight, jammed HBO's satellite signal to broadcast a message protesting their rates for satellite dish owners, which he considered too expensive.


In the mid-1980s, controversy erupted in the cable programming world as United States 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 faced purchasing 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 acquiring and servicing their own equipment.

When HBO began scrambling its signal on a 24-hour basis on January 15, 1986, it offered subscriptions to home dish owners for $12.95 per month ($28.16 in 2015 dollars), which was either equal to or slightly higher than what cable subscribers paid. HBO advised viewers that purchasing a descrambler for $395 ($859 in 2015 dollars) would allow them to continue watching their service.[1] Satellite dish owners began protests over scrambling, saying that clear signals from cable channels would become difficult to receive.[2]


On April 20, 1986, one week before the jamming, MacDougall, a satellite television dealer in Ocala, Florida working at Central Florida Teleport (a company that uplinks services to satellites), transmitted a color bar test pattern which was superimposed on HBO's signal.[3] This only lasted for a few seconds and HBO did not investigate the incident, as it had occurred during the overnight hours and as a result, very few people had been watching HBO at the time.

On April 27, 1986, at 12:32 a.m. Eastern Time (0532 UTC[4]), MacDougall was overseeing the uplink of the movie Pee-wee's Big Adventure as part of the evening's programming for the 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 that for 4½ minutes overrode HBO's telecast of the movie The Falcon and the Snowman, which had begun two minutes earlier.[5] The text message that appeared on the screens of HBO subscribers across the eastern half of the country read:[6]

$12.95/MONTH  ?

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.[6] HBO's engineer tried to regain control by increasing the uplink transmission power from 125 to 2,000 watts. This was unsuccessful, and it was feared that a further power increase would damage the satellite.[7]


HBO contacted the Federal Communications Commission and announced that the hijacker would face prosecution. The hijacking raised concerns over satellite-borne communications, that data transmitted by business and military users would become potential targets.[8]

The Automatic Transmitter Identification System (ATIS) was developed in response to this satellite jamming incident. It allows satellite operators to quickly identify unauthorized uplink transmissions. In 2009, HBO and Elmer Musser were awarded a Technology & Engineering Emmy Award for ATIS.


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, with the character generator graphics used to determine which one. They then knew the operator who was on duty at that time. The FBI learned an accountant had overheard MacDougall at a payphone and obtained a license plate number of a car owned by MacDougall.[9]

Galaxy 1 carried HBO on Channel 23 at a rate of 125 watts with relay signals sent out at 6,385 MHz. 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 dish at the Telstar 301 satellite, operated by AT&T, tuned at 6,065 MHz. The second was by taking over the foreign language feed of the Voice of America network by aiming his satellite dish at 72 degrees west longitude. The final theorized hijacking would be aiming his satellite dish at 100 degrees west longitude, above the Galapagos Islands, with a frequency setting of 293.375 MHz, thereby jamming the signal of United States Navy satellite Fleetsatcom 1.[7]

Arrest and prosecution[edit]

After media pressure forced the Federal Communications Commission to act, MacDougall was charged. He plea bargained a $5,000 fine and was placed on probation for one year. 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).

As of 2011, MacDougall resides in Ocala and performs consulting work.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Associated Press (April 28, 1986). "Video pirate interrupts HBO". The New York Times. Retrieved May 20, 2014. 
  2. ^ Lyman, Rick; Borowski, Neill (April 29, 1986). "On The Trail Of 'Captain Midnight'". Philly. Retrieved May 20, 2014. 
  3. ^ Jean, Charlie; Reidy, Chris (July 23, 1986). "Ocala Man Dished Up That Warning For HBO". Orlando Sentinel. Retrieved May 20, 2014. 
  4. ^ In 1986 the switch from Standard Time to Daylight Saving Time occurred on the night of 26–27 April, at 2:00 a.m. local time, so the Captain Midnight prank occurred a little less than 1.5 hours before the beginning of DST.
  5. ^ "The Story of Captain Midnight". Archived from the original on 2007-01-28. Retrieved 2007-08-03. 
  6. ^ a b DeFino 2014, p. 58.
  7. ^ a b Goldberg, Donald (October 1986). "Captain Midnight, HBO, And World War III". Mother Jones. 
  8. ^ Byers, Jim; Cramer, Jerome (May 12, 1986). "Captain Midnight's Sneak Attack". Time. 
  9. ^ Williams 2010, p. 552-553.
  10. ^ McNamara, Paul (April 26, 2011). "Captain Midnight: 'No regrets' about jamming HBO back in '86". Network World. Retrieved July 20, 2015. 


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