Histories – Signal Hijacks

Our technology has not developed a transmitter strong enough to reach your…

A while ago I did an article on the Max Headroom Incident, where an unknown person hijacked two signals in the Chicago area back in 1987. It’s not the only one though, with two other major incidents occurring in the western world. Signal intrusion is reasonably rare here in the west, probably because technology levels are much higher these days and requires a better level of expertise. In developing nations, particularly those with infighting or rebel groups, signal intrusion is more common, as are pirate radio stations. While signal intrusion (and really radio Dxing in general) is something of a lost art in the west, there are a few interesting examples of intrusions which I think are worth mentioning. So to kick off 2012 proper, here’s a look at two of the better known intrusions.

Firstly, what is a signal intrusion? A signal intrusion is hijacking the broadcast from a radio or television station. It’s a bit tricky to define because you might use the term “jamming” as well, based on how you go about the intrusion. Intrusion tends to be done with the specific intent of broadcasting a message or your own content, while “jamming” (which might be considered similar) is simply blocking the other broadcast. Signal intrusion is fairly uncommon, while jamming is common, particularly in places around China. That goddamn Firedragon/Firedrake network is notorious on the Shortwave bands here in Oceania. Signal intrusion in the days of analogue TV wasn’t too hard to break into; you’d need to find the frequency used to link the studio and the transmitter. If you’re not too familiar with how it all works, most TV stations broadcast to a transmitter placed in a location which will reach a wide area, like a mountain or on top of a tall building. Most signal intrusions would target the transmitter on its receiving frequency, and use a high-power signal to overpower the original, leaving only your intrusion signal. Depending on the frequency you might need line of sight or to be reasonably close to the transmitter. In the days of digital TV or where encryption is used, signal intrusion is much more difficult and you’d just jam the transmission instead. Signal intrusion is not going to the broadcast station and putting in your own video source instead of the intended one; to intrude on the signal you need to actually broadcast and override the original signal, not just replace the original’s broadcast material and broadcast as per normal.

Captain Midnight, real name John MacDougall, is probably the best known signal hijacker around. To understand his motivations we need to go back to 1986, when cable channel owners began to scramble their signals. Many people owned satellite dishes at the time, which they used to access the same channels seen by cable subscribers. It’s important to note that they still had to pay for access from the cable programming providers… well, for the most part, illegal access notwithstanding. A satellite dish was no small ask, and it was pretty useful. Australia for example kept a remarkably good public TV service, while the US has a remarkably laughable public TV service, so if you wanted something decent you wanted a system like this.

The scrambling was a bit of a problem because dish owners now had to fork out for a decoder, which cost a fortune. So not only did they pay a subscription fee and maintain their own equipment, but they now had to pay for a decoder as well. HBO was no different; they offered a subscription for about $13 a month to access its channels, which was comparable to cable subscribers. That might sound reasonable, but remember that a satellite owner is responsible for their own equipment, so really all they were paying for was the right to decode the signal, unlike cable users who don’t maintain their own infrastructure. It ended up triggering public backlash, as you’d expect.

Captain Midnight himself owned a satellite dish dealership, hooking up the populace to the wonders of satellite TV. Let’s make that very clear: if people decided satellite dishes weren’t worth it, his business went down, so this wasn’t entirely free of personal interest. The good Captain was working at Central Florida Teleport on the 27th of April, 1986. He was there to oversee the uplink of a movie aimed at one of the satellites for a particular network. At about 0030 that morning, he went to park the satellite back in its storage position, which happened to aim at Galaxy 1, a communications satellite used by HBO to broadcast its programming. To protest HBO’s scrambling and fees, he broadcast a text message over the top of some test pattern colour bars, stating:


This wasn’t the first time the Captain had done so; about a week earlier he’d overridden the signal with just a test pattern. HBO brushed it off as interference. When Captain Midnight struck out for real, HBO boosted their transmitter to match it, something in the order of 125 watts. Midnight boosted his signal, and HBO’s engineer matched it. HBO were worried that Galaxy 1 was having problems and decided to stop their little game, worried that it might cause damage to the satellite, which would be expensive to resolve. Captain Midnight initially figured that nobody but HBO would know or care, but it started to make national headlines, and eventually pressure from HBO and other broadcasters forced the FCC to act. The investigations commenced.

A disgruntled dish owner serviced by the Captain pretended he was Captain Midnight, and was overheard by someone at a phone booth in Florida. This focused the investigation on the station that MacDougall worked at, and the FCC came knocking. MacDougall was found guilty and fined $5000 with one year’s probation. HBO continued to scramble their signals. Galaxy 1 was retired in 1994.

The year is 1977, and we’re in the United Kingdon. People watching the Southern Television station, operated by ITN, at 1710 on the 26th of November bore witness to an important message from an extraterrestrial being. Or so it claimed. The voice broke through the broadcast and identified itself as Vrillon, of The Ashtar Galactic Command. The signal lasted for nearly six minutes and began during an early evening news broadcast, continuing into a Looney Toons cartoon. The voice was accompanied with a lot of buzzing noises and other weird noises. The signal breaks down in parts as the intrusion fades, allowing pieces of the original to leak through. Some local alarm and panic resulted from the broadcast (which in typical British fashion means someone probably paused in their tea-drinking) but the worst part was that the media mis-reported the vast majority of the message.

The intrusion only managed to take over the audio part of the broadcast, leaving the original video signal intact. It targeted the Hannington UHF transmitter, which was a good target because it was basically a repeater; it received another radio signal from another transmitter, while most transmitters got their signal direct from a landline. Despite obviously being a hoax broadcast, it was notable for being such a long period of time and only really going off the air because the intruder had finished with it. Nobody was caught and to my knowledge nobody has really claimed responsibility. Like the Max Headroom incident much of it is a mystery, save for how the intrusion was achieved. Unlike Max Headroom however this one makes some sort of sense.

So what was Vrillon’s message? The original can easily be found on Youtube, along with a bunch of believers flying in the face of reality. The voice was male, deep, and had a heavy dose of electronic echo added for good measure. It identified itself as Vrillon, a representative of the Ashtar Glactic Command. Vrillion said that humanity had watched them as lights in the skies, and had come to deliver a message to the people of this area, “as we have done to your brothers and sisters all over this, your planet Earth.” For the record, no other intrusions with this message have been recorded, at least to my knowledge. Vrillon then rambles about the Age of Aquarius, how atomic weapons and power stations are bad, how all weapons must be destroyed, and false prophets must be ignored. The voice then signed off, leaving just an annoying whooping noise rising in frequency, until the broadcast was over.

This section might look a little light on facts compared to Captain Midnight, but like I said with the Max Headroom article, that’s really all there is to say about it. There isn’t much else in the way of information about the broadcast. Was it an alien being? No. Trolling before trolls were trolls!


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