Max Headroom Signal Hijack Incident

This release is actually the 400th issue I’ve written, as I state at the start of the article for no good reason. Today’s issue (which I actually wrote at the start of this month, which shows how dedicated I am to this thing) deals with a signal hijack that pretty much everybody probably knows about. After all, DisCONNECT isn’t just about reviews…

DisCONNECT has over 400 issues written. Up until the start of this year though, they were only ever posted on a limited basis; some appeared on UtopiaTech in 2005, some on Sync Error in the later part of 2005 and into 2006, and others appeared here on this blog. DisCONNECT was started back in 2004 as a pet project and I’ve written it ever since. In fact it’s one of the few constants in my life; my career and learning have veered off in all sorts of different directions, but I’ve been writing DisCONNECT every year since 2004. There’s actually about 405 issues; 5 of them were UtopiaTech specials and aren’t included in the official count. Why am I telling you this, especially since I haven’t actually released the other 370-odd issues? Not sure. I thought it’d be interesting. Anyway for the 200th issue (which was in November 2007) I wanted to actually do a video about a particular incident which has fascinated me. But like most of my grand plans that don’t directly relate to me being special and future God-emperor of mankind, I never actually did it. So for the 400th issue I thought I’d cover the original subject anyway. Which sucks because the day that the 200th issue was supposed to be created would have marked the 20th anniversary of this particular incident. God damn, why didn’t I get off my ass and do it?

Anyway the year is 1987, the place is Chicago, and the topic is signal intrusion. On the evening of the 22nd of November 1987, an unknown person successfully managed to hijack a commercial television broadcast, sending out a bizare video that reached a massive number of viewers. There’s only been a few of these kinds of events in television broadcast history in modern places like the US; most people either lack the technical skill or resources to pull of something like this on any large scale, and this guy did it in 1987, which makes it pretty remarkable. The other major incident of commercial broadcast intrusion was by Captain Midnight, a satellite TV equipment salesman to protest HBO subscription prices. What many find remarkable is that whoever did this was never caught, and it’s still an enduring mystery today. So what happened?

The “Max Headroom Broadcast Signal Intrusion Incident”, as Wikipedia calls it (what’s wrong with “Max Headroom Incident”?) actually refers to two separate intrusions of a major broadcast. The first was of WGN-TV’s live telecast of a news program at 2100. The news report was talking about something to do with the Chicago Bears, when suddenly there was a break in the image. For about a minute or so the video feed showed somebody (presumably a man) wearing a brown suit and a Max Headroom full head mask, complete with sunglasses. The person was standing in front of a corrugated metal sheet, which was swaying in the background. The entire setup was designed to emulate the cult-classic TV show Max Headroom, and really it wasn’t a bad attempt. There was no audio during this intrusion, just buzzing. Engineers at WGN changed channels for the broadcast, and the signal was gone. The anchorman’s words sum it up the best: “Well, if you’re wondering what happened, so am I.”

But that wasn’t the end of it. Another station, WTTW, would be the victim of the same attack. At about 2315, during an episode of Doctor Who, the signal was hijacked by the same person. This time however the video was far more interesting than just someone standing in front of a swaying metal sheet. This time not only did the person do more than just stand there for a while, he (it sounds like a man’s voice) talks and performs various actions on screen. The speech is distorted and sounds metallic, and the quality of the feed isn’t exactly fantastic so sometimes it’s hard to understand what’s being said. This particular signal has been posted on YouTube many times. Watch it here, because it’s interesting.

Some of the references are probably a bit obscure (particularly if you’re in Australia like me), so here’s a bit of background. A lot of the statements refer to shows or advertisements that were on TV at the time (ie “Catch the wave” was a New Coke advertising slogan, ironic considering “Max” is holding a Pepsi can) or to organisations. At one point, “Max” says “I just made a giant masterpiece for all the greatest world newspaper nerds”. “WGN” is an abbreviation for “World’s Greatest Newspaper”, a reference to the Tribune Company (who own the Chicago Tribune, and also WGT-TV). He also hums the theme to Clutch Cargo. Other random acts include saying things that sound like “ohhh, my piles!” and something about a dirty glove. His “brother is wearing the other one”, apparently. Note that the “translations” above are pretty much a best guess; most of them fit but “files” and “I stole CBS” are pretty debatable (especially the CBS one, it’s far more likely that he said “I still see the X” which is a reference to Clutch Cargo)

Perhaps the strangest thing about this 90 second broadcast was the part where whoever is playing Max Headroom pulls down his pants, exposing his buttocks, while some woman lightly swats his ass with a flyswatter, at one point giving it a general pat. At least I think it’s a woman, it’s somebody wearing what appears to be a dress. The broadcast ends with a black screen. Afterwards, Dr Who continued as if nothing had ever happened. Unlike the previous event, where they switched transmission channels to the tower, this time “Max” only went off the air because he chose to. The engineers at the time weren’t able to quickly stop the hijack, and by the time they really kicked into gear to find out what was happening, the broadcast was over.

How was it done? Simply somebody with some microwave broadcasting equipment aimed at the receiving tower that would broadcast the signal out to the public, and played their transmission. Unlike Captain Midnight, who was attacking satellites, this didn’t require a massive satellite dish, lots of equipment, and a lot of space. It did however require the technical knowledge to set it all up and aim at the required transmitter to insert the new signal, so whoever did it probably had a fair bit of broadcasting knowledge. It also required a bit of power behind the broadcast, enough to override the intended broadcast. Whoever did it probably packed up the equipment and a tape of what they intended to broadcast, then went somewhere close to the broadcast tower and went to work. It probably only lasted such a short period so as to avoid detection, though tracking something like that is a bit more difficult than Captain Mightnight’s satellite attack. In fact this is probably why the intruder was never caught: he was in and out before anybody could do anything to even begin tracking him, and a microwave broadcast is different to a satellite broadcast where they can use the sats to triangulate the location of the broadcaster quite easily.

In this incident however, because a microwave transmitter was used, the intruder needed much less power and only really needed to be close to the tower and within line of sight. Any number of apartment buildings in the surrounding area would have sufficed. Even then, there’d probably be no trace that the intruder was ever there. Microwave broadcasts like this are also harder to triangulate, so even if the engineers did have the time and ability to get a fix on his position, it still would have been more difficult, and when you consider the short time that the signal was hijacked, it’s not that unexpected that they escaped.

Today this incident is still a mystery; nobody knows who appeared in the video or who actually executed the intrusion (for all we know, they might not be the same person). Perhaps an even better question is “Why?” And, for the most part, I suppose the correct answer is “Why not?” because this was the 1980s when subversive tech knowledge was pretty interesting and valued (think of the old school hackers who stick some ribbon cables into an ATM and get out cash). Some people have attempted to put a political message or corporate attack into the mix; some claim that it’s an attack on commercial media or a critique of American society. It’s undeniable that he takes a swipe at the Tribune Company, but much beyond that, I don’t think there’s any other message in it except “Look at me, I just hijacked your signal! Eat it, fatty!” Honestly some people do this simply because they can, because it’s something that others can’t or haven’t dared to do. There’s no mystery in that. All of the pop-culture references are just that; references to what was on TV around that time period. There’s no hidden message.

Signal intrusion, like I said before, isn’t common in places like the US, UK or Australia. You see it more in places of civil unrest where rebel or separatist groups will attempt to hijack a broadcast (usually radio broadcasts) to insert their own messages. Technology tends to be unsophisticated in those regions and if you really want to break it, you can find a way. Apart from Captain Midnight, the one other most notable example was in the UK in the late 1970s, when Vrillion, supposedly a representative of some galactic command group, sent out some preachy peace message or some shit. This broadcast went on for several minutes and was fairly unstable, breaking down at several points, and it only replaced audio, not video. That’s another interesting one, check it out below. Most other intrusions are for radio broadcasts, not TV. Get out your Shortwave radio (if you’ve got one) and you can hear one of the most overt jamming attempts around: the Chinese Firedragon/Firedrake jammer, the biggest pain in the ass in Oceania and Asia.

So there you have it; the Max Headroom Incident. If you think it’s light on information, that’s because it is. There isn’t much available about the incident, and since the guy who did it was never caught, I guess it’ll remain a mystery. Also The Internet wasn’t really around back then so it’s not like there are hundreds of blogs and suggestions written about the topic.

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