When "Captain Midnight" Hacked HBO
The credits were rolling on Pee-wee’s Big Adventure when John MacDougall decided he'd had enough. It was just after midnight on April 27, 1986, and the engineer for Central Florida Teleport had spent the evening transmitting programming to area cable stations. Alone in the office, MacDougall used his console to maneuver the 30-foot, $500,000 Teleport uplink transmitter dish so that it was pointing at the Galaxy 1 satellite hovering in orbit. He knew one of its transponders belonged to HBO’s east coast feed, and that it was scheduled to begin airing the 1985 Sean Penn conspiracy thriller The Falcon and the Snowman.
MacDougall had a personal message to deliver to the subscription channel. Like Penn’s character in the movie, he’d be accused of threatening national security in order to do it.
When Home Box Office debuted in 1972, the premium channel transmitted its signal unscrambled. While cable subscribers were expected to pay to have the network “unlocked,” owners of backyard-mounted satellite dishes could receive it without incurring any surcharges.
It was that kind of unfiltered access that led to the growth of a small but loyal group of dish enthusiasts in the 1970s and 1980s. It was also what led MacDougall to open MacDougall Electronics in 1983, an Ocala, Florida satellite dish installation service. Like the CB radio hobbyists before them, dish owners enjoyed patching together their own systems and exchanging tips. They also enjoyed a virtually unlimited selection of channels from the growing cable industry, as well as regional affiliates from clear across the country. If you loved television, it was like having a master key.
Nothing about the operation was illegal, and there were enough people intimidated by the prospect of erecting a mini-NASA shrine in their yards to guarantee it would never be a serious threat to cable subscriptions. But HBO was still slightly peeved that consumers were able to access their service—which cost cable users $8.95 a month—for free. Worse, restaurant and hotel chains were able to use the dishes to grab the feed and distribute it to patrons or guests without paying HBO for commercial service.
Channel executives were so bothered by the workaround that they petitioned Congress to grant them the ability to scramble their signal in 1984. They succeeded, and by January 1985, they became the first pay-TV service to require a descrambler box for viewing.
Dish users were angry: They had been sold on the premise that the hassle of installing the expensive equipment would mean not having a cable bill, let alone the need for a $500 set-top box. Customers thinking of getting into the equipment were put off or confused by the additional steps needed. They’d also be paying $12.95 for HBO every month, $4 more than cable users.
MacDougall saw his satellite business decline drastically. It was the loss of income at his shop that led to him getting a second job at Central Florida Teleport, manning the satellite uplinks for cable providers. Left alone, and slightly embittered, he decided to take a jab at HBO.
There was no great mystery in locating HBO’s transponder. Coordinates were easily found in manuals and enthusiast magazines. What MacDougall had that most irate customers didn’t was the power of Teleport’s uplink system. Aiming it at Galaxy 1, a satellite owned by Hughes Communications and used by a variety of companies, MacDougall quickly sent up a test pattern and a typed message expressing frustration at HBO’s perceived greed. He signed it “Captain Midnight” after a popular radio serial character whose name was later adopted by auditory “pirates” who would interrupt radio broadcast signals.
Satellite operators at HBO’s facility in Long Island looked at their monitors, confused. Starting at 125 watts, they steadily and incrementally increased their own signal to try and override the screen and restore The Falcon and the Snowman; MacDougall did the same. Both were trying to drown out the other with sheer power. When the duel reached 2000 watts, HBO gave up. Any higher and they risked damage to the satellite.
MacDougall kept his message on the screen for over four minutes, long enough to cause a crisis at HBO and at Hughes, who told the other they had no idea what was going on. Satisfied he had made his point, MacDougall ended his transmission and went home.
The next day, a frantic HBO huddled with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to discuss what all parties believed was a deliberate act of sabotage. The consequences went beyond interrupting feature films: The FCC had no policies or safeguards enacted to prevent dish owners from interfering with delicate transmissions, including government communication. Mother Jones posited that an amateur hobbyist could, in theory, hijack the same satellites that alerted military forces to Soviet actions, confusing world leaders and putting us on the precipice of nuclear annihilation.
It was a little—or a lot—of fear-mongering, but neither the FCC nor HBO was going to dismiss it as a prank. (Showtime’s then-vice president dubbed it an act of “video terrorism.”) While several attention-seeking people called in to “confess” to being Captain Midnight in the days following the incident, the FCC realized that the signal likely came from an uplink facility with licensed transmitters, narrowing it to a field of 2000 locations. From there, only 580 had a large enough antenna. Of those, less than 100 used the particular kind of typeface seen in the hacked screen’s message, and even fewer used the specific equipment needed to compose it.
Central Florida Teleport was on the short list. Within a few weeks, MacDougall was getting visits from the FCC and a U.S. attorney. Captain Midnight had been cornered.
In July, MacDougall was approached as a person of interest. He confessed and pled guilty in exchange for a year’s probation and a $5000 fine. The alternative was to fight the charge (of illegally operating a satellite uplink transmitter, even though he had a radio license) in court, with a potential loss of $100,000 in fines if he lost. The plea made sense for both parties: The FCC was less interested in prosecuting MacDougall than in learning how he did it.
World War III never did break out as a result of interrupted satellite signals. The FCC placed stronger safeguards, including station identification, to better track communications. MacDougall, meanwhile, was able to fend off the giant-dish downturn and get his footing with the advent of the mini-dish industry, and his business is still in operation today.
HBO was never targeted again, though it wasn’t quite the end of hijacked transmissions. In November 1987, a Chicago station had their local news interrupted by a man in a Max Headroom mask dancing in front of the camera. Later that night, the same individual took over a PBS affiliate and mooned the audience. He was never found.