November 22, 1987 in Chicago, Illinois…
At 9:14pm, during the Nine O’ Clock News sportscast on the local WGN affiliate, television screens all over Chicago went black. The next image on the screen wasn’t Dan Roan, the local sports reporter, talking about the Bears vs. Lions game. It was a man in a Max Headroom mask standing in front of a rotating piece of metal. The sound was staticky and, if the figure was speaking, his words couldn’t be understood.
The interruption lasted less than 30 seconds and then Dan was back. He laughingly said to viewers, “Well, if you’re wondering what just happened, so am I.”
Thinking, initially that the broadcast hack was an inside job, people scattered through the building looking for the culprit. They didn’t find him. They would never find him.
Who was Max Headroom? He was the fictional star of a self titled 1985 British television series. Max was touted as the first computer-generated TV host. In the show, the world was ruled by television. They could never be turned off and everybody had to have one. This was how the networks kept an eye on you. They watched you through your television set.
The character became very popular and could be seen in movies, TV shows and commercials. He was also the spokesman for New Coke (another interesting and short lived creation of the 1980s).
At 11:15, an episode of Dr. Who was interrupted by the same prankster. This time, the screen went black and then a series of colored bars was shown (like at the beginning of a VHS tape). The masked figure appeared again. The audio was distorted, but the words could be made out. The meaning of the words, not so much.
The masked man called someone a “frickin’ nerd” and named a WGN sports announcer, Chuck Swirsky. Max said that he was better than Chuck who he called a “frickin’ liberal.”
He went on to hold up a Pepsi can and say, “Catch the Wave,” which was the slogan for New Coke. He then hummed the theme to a 1960s cartoon series called Clutch Cargo.
The character then sang the words, “Your love is fading” and pretended to defecate on the floor proclaiming that he had “made a giant masterpiece for all the Greatest World Newspaper nerds.”
Then the video cut to Max from a new point of view and with a friend. The man had taken the mask off and was holding it next to his bare butt cheeks. He yelled, “They’re coming to get me!” and then a woman began spanking him with a flyswatter. The screen went to black, and the Dr. Who episode picked back up.
Both channels contacted the FCC and video was obtained from viewers who had been taping the episode of Dr. Who. What seemed like an odd prank to many was, in fact, a crime punishable by a $100,000 fine and jail time.
Some things were clear from the broadcast. What viewers saw had been taped before the signal was breached. This was apparent because the video was edited. Also, WGN was the target. The first station that was hijacked was a WGN station. The masked man referenced a WGN sportscaster and referred to the World’s Greatest Newspaper. (The call letters WGN were a callback to their founding newspaper company, The Tribune.)
Originally, it was assumed that the hackers must have been very sophisticated to pull this off and that they would have needed expensive equipment. It was later determined that it just took someone with a little knowledge of how television signals were sent and a small transmitter aimed in the right place.
Investigators from the FCC may have determined the neighborhood where the video was filmed, but the exact location and the perpetrators have remained a mystery for over 30 years.
A subtitled video of the second transmission can be found here: https://youtu.be/tWdgAMYjYSs
A video summary of this week’s post can be found at