Max Headroom: TV Pirate

Scroll this

Max Headroom Anarchist Superstar

Guy Fawkes has become the face of electronic anarchism, but thirty years ago, before Anonymous and the Federal Sentencing Commission takedown, there was another discordian electro-icon: Max Headroom.

Max was the lead character of the cult-classic made-for-tv-movie, Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into the Future (played by Matt Frewer); and would later appear as a British veejay, the star of his own spinoff show, and as the spokesman for New Coke. His digitized features (created with Hollywood makeup magic) and glitchy stutter were well-known and popular in the late 80′s. So popular that I can’t believe I’m having to explain who he is. Ah, the terrible burden of the elderly.

But on November 22, 1987, TV viewers were introduced to a different Max Headroom. During the Chicago Bears highlights segment of WGN-TV’s Nine O’Clock News, the normal feed was interrupted by the image of a man wearing a Max Headroom mask and sitting in front of a wildly bobbing sheet of corrugated metal while a loud buzz of feedback was heard.

After twenty-five seconds, the sports anchor returned, looking about as confused as anyone, saying, “Well, if you’re wondering what’s happened, so am I.”

What had happened was a broadcast pirate, using a microwave transmitter, overrode the station’s signal with his own.

This wasn’t the first incident of broadcast signal intrusion, of course. Just a year earlier, the infamous “Captain Midnight” (later to be identified as John R. MacDougall) had used his own satellite equipment to interrupt HBO’s programming with a color test pattern bar and the message:

Midnight’s signal was easily triangulated, and he ended up with an FCC fine of $5,000 and a year of probation.

There was also an incident that happened ten years earlier, in 1977, known as the “Southern Television Broadcast Interruption,” where a pirate overrode the UHF audio signal of a UK television news report for a full six minutes with its own message:

This is the voice of Vrillon. I am an authorized representative of the Intergalactic Mission, and I have a message for the planet Earth. We are beginning to enter the period of Aquarius and there are many corrections which have to be made by Earth people. All your weapons of evil must be destroyed. You have only a short time to learn to live together in peace. You must live in peace… or leave the galaxy.”

The pirate was never identified, but the name “Vrillon” along with other clues in the message have led many to believe they were somehow involved with the Ashtar Command UFO cult (a story in itself).

So the Max Headroom pirate was already in good company as one of only a handful of people who’d actually been able to interrupt a television broadcast, but twenty-five seconds with no audio was apparently not enough to sate him.

Two hours after the initial disruption, he returned; this time on the local PBS station, WTTW, during the airing of a Doctor WHO rerun. The station didn’t have the cutting-edge technology of WGN, and was therefore unable to cut off the transmission as they had done. The result was a full minute and a half of distorted voices, non sequiturs, and bizarre imagery.

The Why of the case has never been figured out, and neither has the Who. But considering the technical know-how needed to pull off such a caper, along with the many WGN references (naming the station’s sports caster Chuck Swirsky, humming the theme song of the syndicated cartoon Clutch Cargo, and mentioning the “Greatest World Newspaper nerds” of the Chicago Tribune, which shared WGN’s parent company) it can be deduced that he was probably a disgruntled WGN employee with a bone to pick.

But whatever that bone was, the effects of the interruption went much further than the pirate probably planned, giving a future generation of hackers a Robin Hood story of their own to look to. Though it would be the last time anyone would ever be able to break into a television broadcast, the seeds of possibility were already planted into the soil of the future.

Max Headroom told us to “C-c-c-c-catch the wave,” and that wave has carried us to a strange place, where YouTube directors can make a living off of home videos, and small groups of anarchist computer nerds can make entire nations tremble.