Max Headroom signal hijacking
|Date||November 22, 1987|
The Max Headroom signal hijacking occurred on the night of November 22, 1987, when the television broadcasts of two stations in Chicago, Illinois were hijacked in an act of video piracy by a video of an unidentified person wearing a Max Headroom mask and costume, accompanied by distorted audio and with a corrugated metal panel swiveling in the background to mimic Max Headroom's geometric background effect.
The first incident took place during the sports segment of WGN-TV's 9:00 p.m. news broadcast and lasted about 25 seconds. During this intrusion, the person in the mask swayed erratically and was accompanied by a strange buzzing noise. The second incident occurred around two hours later during PBS affiliate WTTW's broadcast of Doctor Who and lasted for about 90 seconds. The masked person spoke throughout this intrusion and 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". The video ended with the person's exposed buttocks being spanked by a woman with a flyswatter before normal programming resumed.
The first of two intrusions took place during the sports segment of a live broadcast of WGN-TV's The Nine O'Clock News. Home viewers' screens went black for about 15 seconds, then displayed the footage of a person wearing a Max Headroom mask and sunglasses rocking 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. The entire intrusion lasted for about 28 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.
Upon returning to the airwaves, WGN 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". Roan then proceeded to restart his report of the day's Chicago Bears game, which had been interrupted by the intrusion.
That same night at about 11:20pm, 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.
The masked figure made a comment about "nerds", apparently 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 character Max Headroom), and held up a middle finger inside what appeared to be a hollowed-out dildo.
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" (a reference to the last episode of that show), feigned defecation 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. After a crude video edit, the person had moved mostly offscreen to the left with his partially exposed buttocks visible from the side and a female figure appeared 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 him with a flyswatter. The image faded briefly into static, and then viewers were returned to the Doctor Who broadcast after a total interruption of about 90 seconds.
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, 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." Air director Paul Rizzo recalled that "as the content got weirder we got increasingly stressed out about our inability to do anything about it." 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. WTTW received numerous phone calls from viewers who wondered what had occurred.
Methods and investigations
The broadcast intrusion was achieved by sending a more powerful transmission to the two stations' broadcast towers than the stations were sending themselves, which was a difficult task in 1987 but was possible before American television stations switched from analog to digital signals in 2009. Experts have said that the intrusion 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 tall buildings in downtown Chicago.
No one ever claimed responsibility for the stunt. In the years since, speculation about the identities of "Max" and his co-conspirators has centered around 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 aftermath of the incident and unofficial investigations in the years that followed (including a claim of knowledge of the culprits and then a withdrawal of that claim on the website Reddit), the identities and motives of the hijackers remain a mystery.
An FCC official quoted in reporting soon after the intrusion said that the perpetrators faced a maximum fine of $100,000 and up to a year in prison. However, the five-year statute of limitations was surpassed in 1992, so the persons responsible for the intrusion no longer face criminal punishment.
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.
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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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