Captain Midnight (partially lost test intrusion footage of television hijacks; 1986)
The message seen in the main broadcast.
Status: First transmission - Lost / Second transmission - Found
On 27th April 1986, HBO was televising the film The Falcon and the Snowman when the broadcast was interrupted by a hijacker giving himself the moniker "Captain Midnight". The hijack, pulled off by satellite dealer John R. MacDougall, consisted of a message protesting the expensive subscriptions HBO were charging to customers, which caused many satellite dish businesses to cease trading. While real-time footage of the incident was eventually recovered on 10th February 2013, footage of a test intrusion conducted by MacDougall against HBO's signal a week prior is missing.
In the mid-1980s, HBO and other pay television networks like Showtime and Movie Channel began to engage in satellite signal scrambling for their cable feeds. This made viewing their channels impossible without buying an expensive descrambler, in addition to purchasing a monthly subscription of $12.95. The vast cost of investing for unscrambled programming led to a significant decline in satellite dishes being sold, putting many companies selling them out of business. Among those struggling was John R. MacDougall's MacDougall Electronics, who was suffering from a decreased turnover once HBO scrambled its signal on 15th January 1986.
MacDougall was therefore finding difficulty staying afloat, even switching off his air conditioning to save enough money. He and others, including the Satellite Television Industry Association, began protesting the necessity of keeping satellite services safe from excessive charges. But when these fell on deaf ears, MacDougall opted for a more direct approach at challenging the situation.
Aside from running MacDougall Electronics, MacDougall was also working part-time at the Central Florida Teleport uplink station as an operations engineer. This station also provided uplinked services to satellites, which provided the means for him to jam HBO's signal. On 20th April, at around 12:49 a.m. EST, MacDougall successfully hijacked the signal and replaced what was being televised with a colour bar test pattern for around three minutes before HBO increased its uplink transmission power to regain control. The incident was of seemingly little concern to HBO, as only a few select viewers were witnesses of this hijack. This intrusion would never have been reported to the FCC, were it not for the second one that occurred a week later.
On 27th April, HBO were planning to air the film The Falcon and the Snowman. Meanwhile, MacDougall was working at Central Florida Teleport, becoming the only engineer in attendance at 6 p.m.. With no witnesses present, MacDougall began composing a message on a colour bar test pattern. Once he was finished, he aimed Teleport's transmission dish towards the satellite Galaxy 1, which was transmitting the HBO signal. Thus, just as The Falcon and the Snowman was starting, the film was suddenly overridden by the following message:
FROM CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT
NO WAY !
[SHOWTIME/MOVIE CHANNEL BEWARE!]"
MacDougall had given himself the moniker of "Captain Midnight" in reference to the film On the Air Live with Captain Midnight. The hijack itself lasted four-and-a-half minutes, although its duration was nearly cut short when an HBO technician increased his company's uplink transmission power from 125 to 2,000 watts. While this nearly overrode the intrusion, the effort to regain control was thwarted when MacDougall increased his power in response. As a further power increase could potentially have damaged Galaxy 1, HBO ended its control battle, with MacDougall shortly ending the pirate transmission out of concern of being caught.
The incident made mainstream news. While other television hijackers, including those involved in the Southern Television broadcast intrusion and Max Headroom hijackings, would remain at large, MacDougall was not so lucky. Following the intrusion, the FCC began a wide investigation to determine the culprit and narrowed their search down to three prime suspects, one of which was MacDougall. Further, MacDougall was overheard confessing to the jamming on a payphone off Interstate 75 by a Wisconsin accountant. Eventually, MacDougall surrendered to authorities, where he was charged with illegally operating a satellite uplink transmitter. He made a plea bargain that saw him be fined $5,000, be on unsupervised probation for a year, while also having his amateur radio license suspended for one year.
While MacDougall's motivations were seemingly clear, some within the media were concerned that the hijack was a form of domestic terrorism, with Showtime vice president Stephen Schultz deeming it as "video terrorism". While the October 1986 edition of Mother Jones Magazine agreed with this, it also noted the security flaws of satellite communication systems the intrusions inadvertently exposed, particularly the consequences of jamming. National security was also a concern, with the Pentagon's satellites notably lacking any form of defence against jamming. In response, Congress passed the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, which converted satellite hijacking from a misdemeanour to a felony. In 2011, MacDougall stated that he had no regrets about conducting the hijack itself. However, he felt that his motivations behind it were misunderstood and that the intrusion was intended as a "polite message" for HBO rather than a malicious attack.
Decades following the incident, the real-time footage of the second intrusion was missing, with the only viewable media being screenshots of the message. However, on 10th February 2013, Kenneth Burns uploaded the full hijack to YouTube. He explained that at age 15, he had intended to watch The Falcon and the Snowman, and was irritated that the recording was compromised. However, knowing its historical significance, he kept the tape for nearly 27 years before making it publicly available. In contrast, footage of the first intrusion has never been recovered. Considering it aired well past midnight, it is extremely unlikely to have been recorded by the few viewers that witnessed it.
- Lucky Seven (lost TV intrusion footage for unused "Channel 7" TV channel; 1978)
- Max Headroom Television Hijacking (lost audio from first transmission; existence unconfirmed; 1987)
- Playboy Channel religious message (lost footage of television hijack; 1987)
- Southern Television broadcast intrusion (lost real-time footage of television hijack; 1977)
- Telewizja Solidarnosc (lost footage of Polish television hijack; 1985)
- Archived Signal to Noise providing significant detail regarding the story behind Captain Midnight. Retrieved 01 Sep '22
- Issue 111 of Broadcasting detailing the two attacks, the motivation behind them, and MacDougall pleading guilty to conducting them. Retrieved 01 Sep '22
- Mother Jones Magazine detailing the attacks, and the possible security risks they may have exposed. Retrieved 01 Sep '22
- Archived CBS News summarising the second incident. Retrieved 01 Sep '22
- Archived Orlando Sentinel reporting on MacDougall pleading guilty and the original attack on 20th April. Retrieved 01 Sep '22
- Ultimate Classic Rock summarising the incident and noting it inspired the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986. Retrieved 01 Sep '22
- Network World reporting on MacDougall's comments made in 2011. Retrieved 01 Sep '22