Max Headroom signal hijacking
The unidentified hijacker dressed to resemble Max Headroom in the pirate broadcast
|Date||November 22, 1987|
On November 22, 1987, in an act of video piracy, the television broadcasts of two stations in Chicago, Illinois were hijacked by a video of an unknown person wearing a Max Headroom mask and costume, accompanied by distorted audio. The first incident took place for 25 seconds during the sports segment of WGN-TV's 9:00 p.m. news broadcast; the second occurred around two hours later, for about 90 seconds during PBS affiliate WTTW's broadcast of Doctor Who.
The hacker made references to Max Headroom's endorsement of Coca-Cola, the TV series Clutch Cargo, WGN anchor Chuck Swirsky; and "all the greatest world newspaper nerds", a reference to WGN's call letters, which stand for "World's Greatest Newspaper". A corrugated panel swiveled back and forth mimicking Max Headroom's geometric background effect. The video ended with a pair of exposed buttocks being spanked with a flyswatter before normal programming resumed. The culprits were never caught or identified.
The first of two broadcast signal intrusions took place during the sports segment of a live broadcast of WGN-TV's The Nine O'Clock News. For 15 seconds, the screen went black, then displayed a person wearing a Max Headroom mask and sunglasses, accompanied by a buzzing sound and swaying in front of a rotating corrugated metal panel that mimicked Max Headroom's geometric background effect. The hijack lasted 28 seconds, and was stopped after engineers at WGN switched the broadcast frequency of their link to the transmitter atop the John Hancock Center.
Following the incident, sports anchor Dan Roan commented, "Well, if you're wondering what's happened, so am I", and joked that the computer running the news "took off and went wild"; he then repeated his report of the day's Chicago Bears game.
Later that night, during a broadcast of the Doctor Who serial Horror of Fang Rock on local PBS station WTTW, the signal was again interrupted by video of the Max Headroom impersonator, this time with distorted audio.
The masked figure made a reference to WGN sportscaster Chuck Swirsky, whom he called a "frickin' liberal", held up a can of Pepsi while saying "Catch the wave" (a slogan from an ad campaign for Coca-Cola featuring the character Max Headroom), and held up a middle finger (inside what appeared to be a hollowed-out dildo). After singing the phrase "your love is fading", humming the theme song to the 1959 TV series Clutch Cargo, and saying "I still see the X" (a reference to the last episode of that show), he said he had "made a giant masterpiece for all the Greatest World Newspaper nerds" (WGN's call letters stand for "World's Greatest Newspaper"). He then partially exposed his buttocks, saying "they're coming to get me", while a female figure spanked him with a flyswatter. After a few moments of static, viewers were returned to the Doctor Who broadcast.
The signal takeover lasted 90 seconds. WTTW, which maintained its transmitter atop the Sears Tower, found that its engineers were unable to stop the hijacker due to the fact that there were no engineers on duty at the Sears Tower at the time of the hijacking. According to station spokesman Anders Yocom, technicians monitoring the transmission from WTTW headquarters "attempted to take corrective measures, but couldn't". "By the time our people began looking into what was going on, it was over," he told the Chicago Tribune. WTTW received numerous phone calls from viewers who wondered what had occurred for the duration of the intrusion. WTTW was able to find copies of the hijacker's telecast with the help of Doctor Who fans who had been taping the show.
Not long after the incident, WMAQ-TV humorously inserted clips of the hijacking into a newscast during Mark Giangreco's sports highlights. "A lot of people thought it was real – the pirate cutting into our broadcast. We got all kinds of calls about it," said Giangreco.
- Southern Television broadcast interruption
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- Pirate television
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[S]everal other instances of uplink video piracy have occurred [...] WTTW (Channel 11 in Chicago) was also overridden by a 90 second transmission, this time by a man in a Max Headroom mask smacking his exposed buttocks with a fly swatter.
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Strutzel said an engineer quickly changed the frequency of the signal that was transmitting the news show to the Hancock building, thus breaking the lock established by the video pirate.
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- WTTW Chicago – The Max Headroom Pirating Incident (1987) – Original Upload (videotape). The Museum of Classic Chicago Television. October 30, 2007 – via YouTube.
- "WTTW Channel 11 – Doctor Who – 'The Max Headroom Pirating Incident' (1987)". The Museum of Classic Chicago Television. Retrieved September 9, 2019.
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- "Bogus Max Headroom pirates 2 TV stations, drops his pants". The Palm Beach Post. Associated Press. November 24, 1987. p. 3A.
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