Max Headroom Television Hijacking (lost audio from first transmission; 1987)
The Max Headroom Television Hijackings was a 1987 incident in which a group of at least three people interrupted television airings on November 22 on two occasions and two different stations in Chicago. The pirate broadcasts involved a man wearing a mask of 80s pop-culture character Max Headroom. While speculation at the time suggested the hijacking was a form of protest or even a terrorist attack, it is widely accepted to be an elaborate prank. The hijackers remain at large.
The first hijacking took place during a news broadcast on Chicago television station WGN-TV (an independent station at the time, now an independent station again after having been a network affiliate in some sort between 1995 and 2016). Around 9:15 PM, a sports report by anchor Dan Roan during the station's flagship primetime news program, The Nine O'Clock News (now known as WGN News at Nine) was interrupted by a distorted, shaking background, an ominous buzzing noise, and the face of a man in a Max Headroom mask. The noise was likely due to a failure to hijack the station's audio frequencies. The intrusion ended thirty seconds later. Roan returned to the screen, saying, "Well, if you're wondering what just happened, so am I".
The second hijacking took place nearly exactly two hours later, around 11:15, on WTTW (a PBS station) during an airing of the Doctor Who serial Horror of Fang Rock. This time, the hijackers were able to successfully transmit their message, albeit with heavily distorted audio. Max mutters pop cultural phrases like (ironically, while holding a Pepsi can) "Catch the wave" (the catchphrase of competitor New Coke, for which the real Headroom was then spokesperson) and "Your love is fading" (possibly a reference to The Temptations song "(I Know) I'm Losing You"). He also hums the "Clutch Cargo" theme song and states "I still see the X!", a direct reference to the final episode of "Clutch Cargo," and bashes WGN-TV; their then-sister newspaper, the Chicago Tribune; and their then-sports commentator Chuck Swirsky. After just over a minute of seemingly meaningless non-sequiturs, the footage jump cuts to an image of Max bent over, his rear exposed in side view, while a woman in a French maid costume spanks him with a flyswatter.
The incident was largely decried as immature and even obscene. Immediately after the hijacking, widespread media coverage suspected the hijacking was a protest of the then-recent rise of premium cable channels using satellite encryption to prevent non-subscribers from viewing their offerings. The hijackers may have been using the incident as an early form of cyber terrorism to prove that the new encryption methods were not foolproof. Premium cable channels assured subscribers that they did not need to fear similar interruptions, and though concerns continued that the hijackers would strike again, the incident was not repeated.
On 10 November 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 confirms the veracity of the two anonymous posters' stories, leading to the conclusion that the mystery has been solved. The names of the perpetrators, however, have never been revealed.
The first hijacking is presumed to have not been as widely recorded as the second due to the sports broadcast that was being aired. On the 22nd of November 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. Due to Doctor Who fans regularly taping the episode airings, many copies of the second hijacking survive in full.
The hijacking was done by pre-recorded video, as proved by the jump cut from the second broadcast, meaning that audio from the first broadcast may still be in 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. For many years, contemporary and current speculation suggested the two hijackings both used the same footage. However, YouTube user Wadmodder Schalton officially debunked this claim, stating that they are not the same video and footage.
- Vice article on the Max Headroom TV hijacking. Retrieved 15 Oct '20
- Arstechnica article on the Max Headroom TV hijacking. Retrieved 15 Oct '20