Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

In 1987, someone hacked into WGN, in one of TV's strangest-ever moments

Illustration for article titled In 1987, someone hacked into WGN, in one of TVs strangest-ever moments
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Max Headroom broadcast signal intrusion

What it’s about: In 1987, an unknown hijacker hacked into the broadcast signal of Chicago-based basic-cable staple WGN and overrode the station’s programming, then later that same night interrupted Chicago PBS affiliate WTTW. A man dressed as Max Headroom appeared briefly on both stations—without audio on WGN, making nonsensical comments on WTTW—until engineers were able to restore the signal. To this day, neither station nor the authorities have any idea who was behind the attacks.

Strangest fact: There’s a lot of strangeness to this story, but a good place to start may be the fact that Max Headroom was a thing. Three English music-video directors created the character, claiming he was the “world’s first computer-generated TV host.” He was, in fact, actor Matt Frewer, in elaborate latex makeup, made to look like a sophisticated computer graphic. (In fact, computers in 1987 couldn’t draw anything as sophisticated as Max.) Frewer’s voice was modulated with a harmonizer, making his voice sound computerized, as well as adding hiccups, sudden pitch shifts, and other glitches. The character took off, hosting a music video show for Channel 4 which eventually became a talk show. (Despite the elaborate nature of the character, Frewer was a talented improviser who could perform Max live.) Headroom then jumped across the pond for a sci-fi/action series, Max Headroom, in which Frewer played both Max, and a crusading reporter in a dystopian future ruled by TV networks (hacking and overriding a TV station’s signal was solidly in the show’s wheelhouse). Max also had the thankless job of promoting New Coke, but only after Coke Classic had returned.

Biggest controversy: Although this is one of the only examples of signal intrusion in American history, it’s more or less an open-and-shut case. However, the talk page has a surprisingly heated discussion on whether Wikipedia violates copyright by showing a still of the pirate broadcast (the image, which can be seen above this article, is not of the real Max Headroom, but of the pirate in question.)

Thing we were happiest to learn: Chicago TV had a sense of humor about the incident. The first override happened during the 9:00 local news, interrupting WGN’s Chicago Bears highlights for half a minute with an image, but only buzzing for audio. Sportscaster Dan Roan was more bemused than angry, saying, “If you’re wondering what happened, so am I!” Rival station WMAQ later inserted clips of the pirate broadcast into their own sports highlights, leading some viewers to think the hackers had struck again.


Thing we were unhappiest to learn: The hackers, whoever they were, didn’t do much with their 90 seconds of fame. The second broadcast, which interrupted a Doctor Who episode on WTTW, had audio, which opened with the man in the Max Headroom mask saying, “That does it. He’s a freakin’ nerd,” and then, “Yeah, I think I’m better than [local sportscaster] Chuck Swirsky. Freakin’ liberal.” He referenced Max Headroom’s New Coke endorsement, repeating Coke’s “Catch the wave” slogan while holding a Pepsi can. He also hummed the theme to Clutch Cargo, saying, “I still see the X!”, in reference to that show’s final episode. After some additional nonsense, the image cut to the man’s exposed buttocks, (Wikipedia helpfully links to buttocks, for the uninitiated), before a second person in a French maid outfit said, “Bend over, bitch,” and spanked the first man with a flyswatter, before resuming Doctor Who.

Also noteworthy: There have only been three recorded instances of signal intrusion in American history, and the Max Headroom incident was two of them. The third was a Florida-based satellite TV engineer calling himself Captain Midnight, who replaced HBO’s signal for the eastern half of the country, with a text-only message protesting a rate increase many saw as unfair to satellite dish owners. Unlike the Max Headroom incident, Captain Midnight was identified as John MacDougall, who eventually paid a $5,000 fine.

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: The similar Southern Television broadcast interruption, in which an ITV station in the U.K. was interrupted by a voice claiming to represent an “Intergalactic Association,” insisting, “All your weapons of evil must be removed,” and, “You have to learn to live together in peace.” Once again, the identity of the hacker was never established, although UFOlogists insisted that the hacker was an alien intelligence sending a message to Earth by interrupting a Looney Tunes cartoon with an audio-only message to an independent TV station in southern England, because UFOlogists are idiots.

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