Weird Moments in TV History: The Max Headroom Broadcast Signal Intrusion Incident

Image credit: 

Not all pirates wear eye patches and talk funny. Some dress up as characters from TV shows, hijack broadcast signals and troll people who are just trying to watch the news.

This is what happened on November 22, 1987. Sports anchor Dan Roan was live on The Nine O'Clock News on WGN in Chicago, narrating video of the day’s football highlights. The picture on the station monitors, as well as any TV tuned to WGN, suddenly began twitching and flickering. Then the clips from the Bears game gave way to static.

From the snow emerged a clear picture of the grinning face of Max Headroom, the titular character of a TV show and pitchman for “New Coke.” More accurately, it was man in a Max Headroom mask, standing in front of a swaying sheet of corrugated metal, awash in the sound of a high, harsh buzz.

The airwave hijacking, known in the television business as broadcast signal intrusion, was stopped quickly when WGN on-site engineers switched the modulation of the studio link to an alternate transmitter and less than 30 seconds later, the Max impostor, having said nothing, having hardly moved, was gone. Viewers were brought back to a visibly flustered Dan Roan saying, “Well, if you're wondering what happened, so am I.”

The weirdness had only begun. About two hours after the first incident, viewers of the local PBS affiliate WTTW were interrupted in the middle of an episode of Doctor Who. In the middle of a scene, the signal pirate made another intrusion. The picture danced for a second and Max was back in front of the twirling metal panel again. The pirate, this time transmitting with audio, launched into a bizarre diatribe. While his words were distorted, viewers clearly made out several bits, including New Coke’s slogan, “Catch the Wave” (while Max holds a Pepsi can); a remark about sports reporter and announcer Chuck Swirsky; “Your love is fading”; humming of the theme song to TV series Clutch Cargo; and as Max held up a glove, “My brother is wearing the other one.”

After the rant, the picture cut to a shot of the pirate's exposed butt being spanked with a flyswatter by an accomplice wearing a dress, as he cries “They're coming to get me!” The transmission then cut to black and returned viewers to Doctor Who with a flash of static.

The second intrusion lased about 90 seconds and WTTW was unable to stop it. Unlike WGN, WTTW had no engineers on location at the transmission tower, which sits at the top of what was then the Sears Tower. By the time technicians could begin to take corrective measures, the incident was over.

The Federal Communications Commission and the FBI quickly unleashed task forces dedicated to finding and arresting the signal pirate. The perpetrator clearly had a knack for electronics and was somewhere in the Windy City, as the pirate transmission was distributed over WGN's satellite link and WTTW's land-based microwave links. He or she also had some serious bankrolling behind them. Investigators concluded that the pirate smothered WTTW’s broadcast by sending a more powerful signal to the antenna atop the Sears Tower, and equipment with sufficient power to do so would have cost around $25,000.

For what few clues they had to his method, the agencies had even less on the pirate’s motives. There are hints of a grudge against WGN-TV: the station’s call letters stand for “World’s Greatest Newspaper,” a reference to the Chicago Tribune, and the pirate referred to both the “greatest world newspaper nerds” and WGN sports reporter Chuck Swirsky during their second transmission.

The choice of a Max Headroom mask alludes to a broader point. The Headroom TV show was set in a dystopian future where evil media corporations controlled the world and people spread messages of freedom by hijacking live television feeds with pirate signals. The pirate’s prank might have then been a comment on the media in general.

After exhaustive investigations, the agency task forces closed up shop without making any major headway into figuring out the who, how or why of the incidents. In the 22 years since then, broadcast intrusions have been used in the USSR, China and Lebanon as tools of protest and propaganda, while American intruders have turned their attention from broadcast signals to cable television systems. Pranksters in a few states have taken a page from Tyler Durden’s playbook and slipped footage of hardcore pornography into cable programming. The Max Headroom-impersonator, meanwhile, remains at large.

Here’s the WGN intrusion, pieced together with footage from a newscast the following day:

And the WTTW intrusion as seen by Chicagoans that night:

November 29, 2010 - 9:02am
submit to reddit