On 22 November 1987, sports anchor Dan Roan of Chicago’s WGN-TV News Network was narrating the video of the day’s football highlights when something highly unusual happened. The pictures on the station monitors in the studio suddenly began to jitter and twitch. Across Chicago, countless other televisions did the same, as Dan’s clips of the Bears game were lost in a brief flurry of static and replaced with the sinister, grinning visage of Max Headroom. Most viewers were familiar with the techno-stuttering character from the recently canceled television program bearing his name, and from advertisements for the New Coke soft drink. But there was something unsettling and surreal about this rubber-masked imposter.
As a low buzzing sound belched from thousands of televisions throughout Chicago, the intruder’s image swayed and wiggled in front of a slowly rotating background. Half a minute later, as suddenly as it had appeared, the strange scene was gone. As Chicago’s televisions reverted back to the world of the ordinary, the visibly flustered sports reporter reappeared, and commented, “Well, if you’re wondering what happened… so am I.”
WGN-TV’s on-site technicians neutralized the “pirate” transmission by switching to an alternate transmitter, but the attacker’s motives and methods were a mystery. It was not the first time a commercial television broadcast had been commandeered, but very few prior attempts had been successful. The previous year a satellite dish salesman going by the fanciful pseudonym “Captain Midnight” had succeeded in briefly replacing HBO’s signal with a complaint about their prices, and earlier in 1987 an employee of the Christian Broadcasting Network had hijacked the Playboy Channel’s signal. Both of these prior offenders had clear motives, and the authorities had successfully located and prosecuted the troublemakers. But this new instance of signal hacking was much more perplexing.
In spite of the quick actions of WGN-TV engineers, Chicago had not yet seen the last of of this new signal-plundering pirate. Almost exactly two hours after the first unplanned detour from normality, at 11:15pm, viewers of the PBS affiliate WTTW were absorbing an episode of the British sci-fi series Doctor Who when their TV pictures danced sporadically for a moment. With a randomly gyrating panel of corrugated metal used as a backdrop, the unnerving Max Headroom doppelganger launched into an eccentric diatribe in a highly distorted voice. With no engineers on location at the transmission tower, WTTW employees looked on helplessly as the intruder seized control of their broadcast.
One possible transcript follows:
“He’s a freaky nerd!”
“This guy’s better than Chuck Swirsky.” (a WGN -TV sportscaster at the time)
“Catch the wave.” (a reference to the New Coke marketing slogan)
“Your love is fading.”
(hums the theme song to the 1959 TV series “Clutch Cargo”)
“I stole CBS.”
“Oh, I just made a giant masterpiece printed all over the greatest world newspaper nerds.”
“My brother is wearing the other one.”
“They’re coming to get me!”
This symphony of strangeness reached its crescendo when the rubber-masked imposter dropped his trousers, exposed his backside, and weathered a spirited flyswatter spanking from a female assistant. Moments later the picture went dark, and the surreal signal terminated in a flash of static. Viewers were dumped back into the pedestrian world of Doctor Who as though the bizarre buttocks-swatting incident had never happened. Many were confused and troubled by the display. The following day a number of viewers contacted the station to lodge their complaints regarding the “nudity.” In a television interview, one flustered Doctor Who fan summed up his reaction: “I got so upset that I wanted to bust the TV set… I really did.”
The Federal Communications Commission and the FBI sprang into action, launching independent pirate-hunting squads to unmask the disturbing messenger. It was clear that the fellow had a rare knack for electronics and microwave equipment. WTTW’s uplink antenna was atop the 1,454 foot Sears tower in downtown Chicago, and investigators concluded that the “signal pirate” smothered the legitimate broadcast by sending a more powerful signal to this antenna. According to some experts in broadcasting, a rig of sufficient power could be purchased for about $25,000— or perhaps rented for a few thousand dollars— and the disassembled equipment could be transported using a few large suitcases. Agents believed that the perpetrator either beamed his message from the rooftop of an adjacent building, or that he somehow gained access to a powerful ground-based transmitter. But Max had covered his tracks well, there was no clear indication of how he had executed his sophisticated attack.
His motive was even more puzzling than his methods. The enigmatic message may have been due to a grudge against WGN-TV, since the station’s call letters stand for “World’s Greatest Newspaper,” and he makes a reference to “greatest world newspaper nerds”; and he also mentions Chuck Swirsky, another WGN sports reporter at the time. But given the resources and risks involved in commandeering a commercial signal, the message seems disproportionate. At that time, the law allowed for a maximum penalty of $100,000 and one year in prison for such signal piracy. Perhaps the intrusion was merely a proof-of-concept— a precursor of future ambitions— or perhaps there is more meaning to the message than what is immediately evident. The Max Headroom television show had been set in a post-apocalyptic future where evil television corporations controlled the world, and freedom fighters spread their messages by zipping their pirate signal into live television feeds, and this subtle social commentary was not lost on investigators.
Whatever the impostor’s intentions, he certainly took significant risks to bring his nebulous message to the televisions of Chicago. The exhaustive investigations by the three-letter agencies turned up nothing substantial, and over time the FCC and FBI resigned their manhunts without any significant insight into who he was, how he did it, or why. To this day the unexplained transmission of 22 November 1987 remains an historic curiosity, since it represents the last such signal of its kind—no other instance of a complete hijacking of a commercial broadcast has occurred in the US in the years since. For now the mysterious masked Max Headroom lookalike remains at large, but his backside may never truly be safe from the mighty flyswatter of justice.