Max Headroom Television Hijacking (lost audio from first transmission; existence unconfirmed; 1987)
The Max Headroom Television Hijacking is the popular name given to an incident in which at least two people interrupted broadcasts on the night of November 22nd, 1987, on two different television stations in Chicago. The pirate broadcasts involved a man wearing a mask of 1980s computer-generated 'personality' Max Headroom. While speculation at the time suggested the hijacking was a form of protest or even a terrorist attack, it is nowadays widely accepted to be merely an elaborate prank. The hijackers remain at large, and the apparently missing audio track from the first attempt remains lost.
The first hijacking took place during a news broadcast on independent Chicago television station WGN-TV, Channel 9 on the dial. Around 9:15 PM, anchor Dan Roan was giving the sports report on the nightly news program when his Bears game highlights were abruptly interrupted by a figure in a brown suit and full latex Max Headroom mask, head and shoulders only visible against an undulating, corrugated tin background - evidently a manual mimic of Headroom's signature hard-edged graphic style. The masked figure seems to be moving to music, but the only actual audio is heavy, buzzing static. This lack of a discernable soundtrack is thought to have resulted from a failure to hijack the station's audio frequencies.
The intrusion ran only for the thirty seconds it took WGN engineers to switch to a signal from an unaffected transmitter, whereupon a visibly flustered Roan reappeared to tell viewers "Well, if you're wondering what just happened, so am I!".
The second hijacking took place almost exactly two hours later, around 11:15, on PBS station WTTW during an airing of the Doctor Who serial Horror of Fang Rock. This time - since the WTTW engineers had left for the night - the hijackers managed to successfully transmit their complete 2min 45sec message, albeit still with heavily distorted audio. Unfortunately, that message is incoherent to the point of it being unlikely there was one at all, outside of the hack itself.
This new 'production' once again stars the masked Max Headroom figure against the same stylized background but is (as was proven later by internal clues) a separate segment from the first. Given the content, though, it was likewise aimed at WGN. Presumably, the hijackers had the insider savvy to realize WTTW, later at night, would be a softer target.
'Max' begins this round by asserting that someone (on the evidence, probably Roan) is a "Frickin' nerd! Yeah, I think I'm better than [WGN Radio sports anchor] Chuck Swirsky... Frickin' liberal!" Then, laughing, he holds up a Pepsi can and says "Catch the wave" - the catchphrase of Pepsi competitor New Coke, for which the real Headroom was a spokesman at the time. Pseudo-Max tosses the can aside, shows off what some interpret as a sex toy and adds "Your love is fading" (possibly a reference to The Temptations' song "(I Know) I'm Losing You"). He hums the theme song to the children's program Clutch Cargo (which had been airing in reruns on WGN at the time) and says "I still see the X!", a reference to the show's final episode.
He complains about his 'piles' (or possibly 'files'). Noises are heard suggestive of defecation and 'Max' announces that he "just made a giant masterpiece for all the Greatest World Newspaper Nerds!" (a garbled reference both to WGN, 'The World's Greatest News' station, and their then-sister newspaper, the Chicago Tribune). He then grabs a single industrial glove and puts it on, explaining that "My brother is wearing the other one... It's dirty! I'm going to [unintelligible]!" As he tosses the glove away in disgust, the footage jump cuts to an image of 'Max' bent over, his rear exposed in side view, shrieking "They're coming to get me! Don't do it! Noooo!" while a second figure in a French maid costume - just far enough off-screen to be anonymous - spanks him with a flyswatter.
The incidents garnered widespread media coverage, and outrage from the public. The FCC opened an investigation, warning that if caught, the perpetrators faced a year in jail and upwards of $100,000 in fines. The case soon went cold, however; despite the careful planning and expensive, highly specialized equipment that must have gone into their adventure, the hijackers were seemingly content with their single day's efforts and made no further communications of any kind.
Several theories as to their identities and motives have been put forth over the years, ranging from disgruntled employees taking revenge to more sinister cyber-terrorism. One popular contemporary theory was that the hijacking was a protest against the then-recent rise of premium cable channels using satellite encryption to lock out non-subscribers - proving that this encryption was not foolproof. Premium cable channels hastened to assure subscribers that they did not need to fear similar interruptions.
On November 10th, 2010, a Reddit poster claimed to know the persons behind the hijacking incident. In 2013, a follow-up to the discussion from Reddit's Chicago forum verified the original poster's details and confirmed the story. Working with these two posters, Chris Knittel of Vice and Motherboard wrote a complete article with additional research that seemingly confirms the veracity of the two anonymous posters' stories, leading to the conclusion that the mystery has been solved. However the names of the suspects have never been revealed, and the original Reddit tipster has since indicated he is no longer certain of his identification.
The first hijacking is presumed to have not been as widely recorded as the second since it aired during a news broadcast. On November 22nd, 2017, The Museum of Classic Chicago Television, an online museum dedicated to the preservation of programming from the Chicago area, uploaded a copy of the first transmission to their YouTube channel. On the other hand, due to the large number of American Doctor Who fans regularly taping episodes off WTTW, many copies of the second hijacking survive in full and several have since been uploaded to YouTube, a number with subtitles.
Since the hijacking almost certainly involved two separate segments of pre-recorded video, the unaired audio from the first broadcast may still be in the possession of the hijackers. Since leaking the tapes risks revealing their identities, it is unlikely that this original video will ever see the light of day.
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- Southern Television broadcast intrusion (lost real-time footage of television hijack; 1977)
- Telewizja Solidarnosc (lost footage of Polish television hijack; 1985)
- Vice article on the Max Headroom TV hijacking. Retrieved 15 Oct '20
- Arstechnica article on the Max Headroom TV hijacking. Retrieved 15 Oct '20