A bit of a spooky TV entertainment history here today with this notorious incident from 1987. The Max Headroom Broadcast Intrusion was a television signal hijack in Chicago. The perpetrators managed it across two channels on the evening of November 22nd, 1987.
In the clips, someone dressed in a Max Headroom mask with sunglasses messes around whilst a sheet of corrugated iron shifts around in the background. Now, this act was enough to land these nefarious sorts in jail and with a big fine. So, perhaps unsurprisingly, whoever did it has never owned up. The whole incident remains a mystery. And that only adds to its mystique.
Familiarise yourself with this dude above before we go any further. If you’re wondering (as we sure were), Max Headroom became popular in the 1980s as an AI character. The idea is he’s a comedian of sorts – a witty computer. Anyway, he was successful enough to do ads for Coca-Cola. It was an ’80s thing, clearly.
The first hijacking took place on WGN-TV. It was only a partial success. There was a 15 second interruption of a sports report until engineers changed the studio link frequency. That brought the matter to a close rather rapidly. But those crazy SOBs weren’t done already – and their next effort was a tad more successful.
At 11:15pm, the most famous intrusion took place. Doctor Who was on for PBS station WTTW. With this hijacking, the perpetrators managed to get the audio up and running. On this occasion, they also managed to get audio up and running – the hijacking lasted long enough for the bloke (presumably) in the mask to get his arse out.
As there were no engineers working during the unexpected broadcast, technicians within WTTW tried to block the transmission. But then it ended anyway and that was that. What in the name of bejeezus did any of it mean!? What was certain, claimed by WGN’s engineering director, is the individuals responsible needed cutting-edge equipment to achieve what they did.
The incident made the news across America and prompted public debate. Some people found it hilarious. Others disturbing. Some Dr. Who fans just complained their VHS recordings had been spoiled. Stupid snowflakes.
Which Commie Bastards Did This?!
It was the 30th anniversary of this event last year (our math skills paying off there – C at GCSE level, thank you very much). And this was celebrated with various articles detailing the incident.
But others further back have done a fine job of getting to the bottom of this. Motherboard extensively documented the possibilities of who did the act. In what’s an incredibly in-depth investigative piece from 2013, it provides some revealing insights.
But with illegal interference of broadcast signals a federal offense, the government was pretty miffed with the intrusion. The FBI’s Chicago office warned everyone there’s a penalty of $100,000 and a 12 month spell in jail.
It’s revealed an FBI report on the incident by a Dr. Michael Marcus shunned the verdict of the WGN – he thought nothing overly sophisticated or expensive was required as second-hand equipment could be picked up. He said:
"It did need a dish antenna, but if they got close to the STL receiver antenna at the TV transmitter, than a Direct-TV-size antenna might have been adequate."
But the reality seems this was nothing more than a grand scale prank. We get a lot of those in the YouTube era, but the fact the hijackers remain unknown is what makes this incident special. And as that excellent Motherboard piece puts it, the Max Headroom Broadcast Intrusion:
"[Is] ripe for media studies too, perhaps—a cyberpunk culture jam, an anarchic protest decades before Anonymous and hacktivism became household terms, reminding unsuspecting audiences how unsuspecting they really were."
Ultimately, there remain a lot of conspiracy theories but no conclusion. So we went to throw our “hat” into the “ring”. We believe what happened is the real Max Headroom came to life and hijacked TV. We’ve got no proof about that in the slightest, but when you’ve got instinct… you go with it. Thank you and good night.