The Time Max Headroom Hijacked Two Networks
It’s kind of hard to explain Max Headroom if you didn’t experience him in the ‘80s. He started as the star of a British made-for-TV movie called Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into the Future, the story of a hard-hitting journalist whose brain is implanted into a computer after he suffers a serious head injury.
The cyberpunk movie proved so popular that in 1987, a show by the same name was introduced in the United States. Audiences had never seen anything like the glitching, stuttering faux AI—and though the series itself only lasted two seasons, the character of Max Headroom gained near-instantaneous status as a pop culture symbol of the ‘80s. His fame was cemented when he was chosen to represent another distinctly ‘80s phenomenon: New Coke. Here’s one of his commercials:
Max was made to look computer generated, but he was actually just actor Matt Frewer in a lot of foam makeup and a fiberglass suit. You can imagine the surprise of Chicagoans, then, when the fictional character took over their televisions on November 22, 1987, apparently of his own accord.
Two stations in Chicago—WGN and WTTW—were interrupted for nearly 90 seconds in the middle of Sunday night programming. “Max,” or at least someone wearing a cheap Halloween mask and doing a decent impression of him, spent almost a minute and a half talking gibberish and humming, then wrapped up his segment by presenting his bare butt to a woman holding a flyswatter.
WGN sportscaster Dan Roan, who was interrupted mid-broadcast, probably summed up the situation best: “If you’re wondering what’s happened,” he said when cameras were back on him, “So am I.”
The FCC took the whole thing very seriously, but couldn’t come up with a motive, a method, or even culprits. The signals were impossible to trace, and to this day, the identities of the hackers and how they gained access remains a mystery.
Here’s the creepy broadcast in its entirety: