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Max Headroom signal hijacking

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Max Headroom signal hijacking
The unidentified hijacker dressed to resemble Max Headroom in the pirate broadcast
DateNovember 22, 1987; 36 years ago (1987-11-22)
LocationChicago, Illinois, U.S.
ParticipantsAt least 3 (unidentified)

On the night of November 22, 1987, the television signals of two stations in Chicago, Illinois, were hijacked, briefly sending a pirate broadcast of an unidentified person wearing a Max Headroom mask and costume to thousands of home viewers.[1][2][3][4]

The first incident took place during the sports segment of independent TV station WGN-TV's 9:00 p.m. newscast. Like the later signal intrusion, it featured a person wearing a mask swaying erratically in front of a swiveling corrugated metal panel, apparently meant to resemble Max Headroom's animated geometric background. Unlike the later intrusion, the only sound was a loud buzz. This interruption went on for almost 17 seconds before engineers at WGN were able to regain control of their broadcast tower.

The second incident occurred about two hours later during PBS member station WTTW's broadcast of the Doctor Who serial Horror of Fang Rock. With nobody on duty at the affected tower, this signal takeover was more sustained, and the masked figure could be heard making reference to the real Max Headroom's advertisements for New Coke, the animated TV series Clutch Cargo, WGN sportscaster Chuck Swirsky, "Greatest World Newspaper nerds", and other seemingly unrelated topics. The video concluded with the masked figure presenting his bare buttocks to a woman with a flyswatter while yelling "They're coming to get me!", with the woman responding "Bend over, bitch!" and lightly spanking him with it as the figure was crying and screaming. At that point, the hijackers ended the pirate transmission, and normal programming resumed after a total interruption of about 90 seconds.[5]

A criminal investigation conducted by the Federal Communications Commission in the immediate aftermath of the intrusion could not find the people responsible, and despite many unofficial inquiries and much speculation over the ensuing decades, the culprits have yet to be positively identified.[6][7][8][9]

Signal intrusion


Both Max Headroom broadcast signal intrusion incidents took place on local Chicago television stations on the night of Sunday, November 22, 1987.[6][7][8][9]


A recording of the WGN-TV intrusion

The first intrusion took place at 9:14 p.m. during the sports segment of WGN-TV's The Nine O'Clock News. Home viewers' screens went black for about fifteen seconds, before footage of a person wearing a Max Headroom mask and sunglasses is displayed. The individual rocks erratically in front of a rotating corrugated metal panel that mimicked the real Max Headroom's geometric background effect accompanied by a staticky and garbled buzzing sound.[1][10][11] The entire intrusion lasted for about 20 seconds and was cut off when engineers at WGN changed the frequency of the signal linking the broadcast studio to the station's transmitter atop the John Hancock Center.[12]

Upon returning to the airwaves, WGN sports anchor Dan Roan commented, "Well, if you're wondering what's happened, so am I",[1] and joked that the computer running the news "took off and went wild". Roan then proceeded to restart his report of the day's Chicago Bears game, which had been interrupted by the intrusion.[13]


A recording of the WTTW intrusion[14]

That same night, at about 11:20 p.m., the signal of local PBS station WTTW was interrupted during an airing of the Doctor Who serial Horror of Fang Rock. The culprit was the same Max Headroom impersonator, this time speaking with distorted audio.[8][11]

The masked figure made a comment about "nerds", called WGN sportscaster Chuck Swirsky 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 Max Headroom character),[1][8] and held up a middle finger inside what appeared to be a hollowed-out dildo.[15] The figure then ran through a series of quick comments and song snippets interspersed with excited noises and exclamations. "Max" sang the phrase "Your love is fading"; hummed part of the theme song to the 1959 animated series Clutch Cargo and said, "I still see the X!" (This was a reference to the last episode of that show, which is sometimes misheard as "I stole CBS.") He also feigned defecation (complaining of his piles) and explained that he had "made a giant masterpiece for all the Greatest World Newspaper nerds" (WGN's call letters stand for "World's Greatest Newspaper"), and discussed sharing a pair of dirty gloves with his brother.[1][11][8] After a crude video edit, the person had moved mostly offscreen to the left with his partially exposed buttocks visible from the side, with a female figure wearing a French maid costume and what appears to be a mask appearing on the right edge of the frame. The (unworn) Max Headroom mask was briefly held in view while the voice cried out, "Oh no, they're coming to get me! Ah, make it stop!" and the female figure began spanking "Max" with a flyswatter.[8] The image faded briefly into static, and then viewers were returned to the Doctor Who broadcast after a total interruption of about 90 seconds.[8][11]

Technicians at WTTW's studios could not counteract the signal takeover because there were no engineers on duty at that hour at the Sears Tower (now known as the Willis Tower), where the station's broadcast tower was located. According to station spokesman Anders Yocom, technicians monitoring the transmission from WTTW headquarters "attempted to take corrective measures, but couldn't."[16] Air director Paul Rizzo recalled that "as the content got weirder we got increasingly stressed out about our inability to do anything about it."[6] The pirate broadcast ended when the hijackers unilaterally ended their transmission. "By the time our people began looking into what was going on, it was over," said Yocom.[12] WTTW received numerous phone calls from viewers who wondered what had occurred.[17]

Methods and investigations


The broadcast intrusion was achieved by sending a more powerful microwave transmission to the stations' broadcast towers than the stations were sending themselves, triggering a capture effect. This was a difficult task in 1987 but was possible before American television stations switched from analog to digital signals in 2009.[9] Experts have said that the stunt required extensive technical expertise and a significant amount of transmitting power, and that the pirate broadcast likely originated from somewhere in the line of sight of both stations' broadcast towers, which were atop two tall buildings in downtown Chicago.[12]

No one has ever claimed responsibility for the stunt. Speculation about the identities of "Max" and his co-conspirators has centered on the theories that the prank was either an inside job by a disgruntled employee (or former employee) of WGN or was carried out by members of Chicago's underground hacker community. However, despite an official law enforcement investigation in the immediate aftermath of the incident and many unofficial investigations, inquiries, and online speculation in the ensuing decades, the identities and motives of the hijackers remain a mystery.[6][7][8][9][18]

Soon after the intrusion, an FCC official was quoted in news reporting that the perpetrators faced a maximum fine of $10,000 and up to a year in prison.[1][12] However, the five-year statute of limitations was surpassed in 1992, so the people responsible for the intrusion would no longer face criminal punishment should their identities be revealed.[1]

Cultural impact


Though the incident only briefly caught the attention of the general public, it has been overtly or subtly referenced in a variety of media over the ensuing decades, with Motherboard claiming that it has been an influential "cyberpunk hacking trope".[9]

The first reference came soon after the initial events when WMAQ-TV, another Chicago TV station, 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.[19]

See also



  1. ^ a b c d e f g Knittel, Chris (November 25, 2013). "The Mystery of the Creepiest Television Hack". Motherboard. Vice Media. Archived from the original on September 18, 2014.
  2. ^ Ross, Andrew (1990). "Techno-Ethics and Tele-Ethics: Three Lives in the Day of Max Headroom". In Mellencamp, Patricia (ed.). Logics of Television: Essays in Cultural Criticism. Indiana University Press. p. 138. ISBN 0-253-33617-1.
  3. ^ Schwoch, James; White, Mimi; Reilly, Susan (1992). Media Knowledge: Readings in Popular Culture, Pedagogy, and Critical Citizenship. SUNY Press. p. 113. ISBN 978-0-7914-0825-4.
  4. ^ Forester, Tom; Morrison, Perry (1994). Computer Ethics: Cautionary Tales and Ethical Dilemmas in Computing. MIT Press. p. 74. ISBN 0-262-56073-9. [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 riding crop.
  5. ^ Hill, Steven Warren (2017), Red White and Who: The Story of Doctor Who in America, Cockeysville, MD: ATB Publishing, pp. 79–81
  6. ^ a b c d Shefsky, Jay (November 21, 2017). "30 Years Later, Notorious 'Max Headroom Incident' Remains a Mystery". WTTW News.
  7. ^ a b c Unruh, Julie (November 23, 2017). "30 years later, Max Headroom hijack mystery remains unsolved". WGN-TV.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h Gallagher, Sean (November 22, 2017). "Thirty years later, "Max Headroom" TV pirate remains at large". Ars Technica.
  9. ^ a b c d e Haskins, Caroline (November 22, 2017). "Television's Most Infamous Hack Is Still a Mystery 30 Years Later". Motherboard. Vice Media.
  10. ^ Hayner, Don (November 24, 1987). "2 channels interrupted to the Max". Chicago Sun-Times. p. 3. CHI265386. Archived from the original on November 6, 2012. Retrieved June 26, 2016.
  11. ^ a b c d Bellows, Alan (January 2007). "Remember, Remember the 22nd of November". Damn Interesting. Archived from the original on May 15, 2016.
  12. ^ a b c d Camper, John; Daley, Steve (November 24, 1987). "A powerful video prankster could become Max Jailroom". Chicago Tribune. p. 21. 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.
  13. ^ WGN Channel 9 – The Nine O'Clock News – "The 1st 'Max Headroom' Incident" (1987) (Videotape). The Museum of Classic Chicago Television. November 23, 2017. Retrieved November 23, 2017 – via YouTube.
  14. ^ WTTW Chicago – The Max Headroom Pirating Incident (1987) – Original Upload (videotape). The Museum of Classic Chicago Television. October 30, 2007. Archived from the original on December 13, 2021 – via YouTube.
  15. ^ "WTTW Channel 11 – Doctor Who – 'The Max Headroom Pirating Incident' (1987)". The Museum of Classic Chicago Television. Retrieved September 9, 2019.
  16. ^ Carmody, John (November 24, 1987). "NBC Lands Gorbachev Interview". The Washington Post. p. D1. 95520. Archived from the original on September 9, 2016. Retrieved June 26, 2016 – via ProQuest Archiver.
  17. ^ "Bogus Max Headroom pirates 2 TV stations, drops his pants". The Palm Beach Post. Associated Press. November 24, 1987. p. 3A.
  18. ^ "The Max Headroom Incident: Revisiting The Masked Mystery, 32 Years Later". www.wbur.org.
  19. ^ Ruane, John (January 1, 1988). "Casting final look at '87 // Local sportscasters recall year's memorable events". Chicago Sun-Times. p. 94. Archived from the original on September 11, 2016. Retrieved June 26, 2016.

Further reading