Friday, August 2, 2013

Freaky (Factual) Tale Friday: The Max Headroom Broadcast Signal Intrusion



On Sunday, November 22 of 1987, Chicago's WGN-TV news desk looked to have a pretty easy night as far reporting on the city's sports teams was concerned. It had been a frustrating year for all NFL fans due to a strike occurring in the middle of the season, but now the "real" players were back on the field and the Chicago Bears looked like they were headed towards a post season appearance.

Earlier that day, the Bears had trounced the Detroit Lions 30-10 at Solider Field. Sports anchor Dan Roan was getting set to report on this happy outcome for Bears fans during the 9:00 Sunday evening news broadcast. But before he could, this happened...





After approximately 30 seconds of metallic buzzing and what looked like the receptionist at the gates of Hell bouncing around back and forth, WGN was able to switch their studio link frequency and get back on the air. Dan Roan, along with the rest of his Chicago viewers and WGN's national cable audience, had absolutely no idea what had just happened.

Please Note

Children of the 80's who watched way too much television like myself can probably skip the next section


Who/what was that?

If you were alive during the 1980's, you at least have a point of reference. The person (or demonic being) on the screen was wearing mask in the likeness of Max Headroom, a character from the British cyber-punk cult movie Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into The Future.

The movie takes place in a dystopian future where TV corporations run the world. A reporter trying to crack a big story about them is killed, but his consciousness is transferred into a computer...which also makes him tell lots of corny jokes and speak with a stutter.

The movie, and subsequently the character of Max, was so popular that he eventually got his own TV show.

Embedded below are some of his "greatest hits." You'll notice that the background for nearly all the clips looks like what the person in the Max Headroom mask was trying to imitate via the use of swaying corrugated metal.








Max soon became an international hit, which lead to him booking numerous guest appearances on British and American television shows; he even once appeared on Sesame Street.

But what he may be best known for was his ill-advised turn as the spokesman the disastrous product known as New Coke. The Coca-Cola Company had attempted to change the formula of their signature drink, which not only tasted terrible, but led to commercials like this getting made:






For those of you that didn't watch the video embedded above (and I can't blame you after already suffering through the previous Max Headroom clip collection), New Coke's slogan was "Catch the Wave." Unfortunately for the company, all they seemed to catch instead was a lot of flak for changing the soda's classic formula.


The Second (and more successful) Attempt

None of this information, however, explains why someone decided to dress up as Max Headroom and interrupt a major news station's broadcast. Fortunately (or unfortunately if you scare easily), a second and more successful attempt at a broadcast signal intrusion was made that evening.

This time, the target was Chicago's PBS affiliate, WTTW. During an 11:15 airing of the Dr. Who episode entitled 'Horror of Fang Rock', Max was able to completely overtake the station's signal, this time with sound and a lot more air time to work with.

Embedded below is a video of the incident along with attempted subtitles. It's a bit NSFW due to some mild language, but mostly because at 1:44 you see the side of a man's butt being whacked by a fly swatter. I don't care how old you are, that's a pretty traumatizing thing to witness.






Ummm...what?

For those of you left that haven't gone into a comatose state due to a mixture of fear and confusion, let's try to identify and possibly analyze what we just saw.

0:25 - The signal hijacking is successful. Max giggles with delight that he has interrupted WTTW's signal and now controls the station's broadcast. This is very serious since unlike WGN, WTTW was unable to regain control of its signal...meaning that Max now had full control of their broadcast.

0:28 - It's unclear who Max was referring to as a "frickin' nerd", but he then takes a shot at legendary Chicago Bulls play-by-play announcer Chuck Swirsky. After Max claims to be better than him, he refers to Swirsky as a "freakin' liberal." I have not found any information on Swirsky's political views, nor does it seem very relevant to the work he has done as a sports radio broadcaster...so yeah....

0:43 - After exclaiming "Oh Jesus!" and moaning for a few seconds, Max picks up a can of Pepsi (Coke's main competitor) and parrots its competitor's "Catch the Wave" slogan while tossing the can off camera. This was probably meant as an ironic joke or a dig at Coke's advertising campaign.

0:53 - Max continues to moan and scream while also putting some type of rubber extension on his middle finger. He then begins to sing "your love is fading," which is a line from The Temptations 1966 hit (I Know) I'm Losing You. At this point, "love" may be a representative term for our collective sanity.

1:00 - Max begins singing the theme to Clutch Cargo, an animated television show from the late 1950's. Despite it's time period, the production values are still unforgivably terrible (as evidenced by the video below).




1:06 - Max claims that he "stole" CBS while continuing to sing the Clutch Cargo theme.

1:13 - Max randomly screams "OH MY FILES!"

1:20 - Max (FINALLY) says something that seems to have a direct and intended target, proclaiming that he has just made a "masterpiece for all the greatest world newspaper nerds." This would seem to be a dig at at WGN, whose initials stand for World's Greatest Newspaper. This also seems like a pretty douche move since he's actually hijacking the signal of a PBS affiliate, instead.

1:30 - Max puts on a glove and claims that his brother is wearing the other one. He then complains that it's dirty and that it has blood on it. Yeah, I got nothing....

1:40 - I guess Max figured that his time was limited before someone found him. Thankfully, he ends the video before we have to watch his partner in crime spank him with a flyswatter for very long.


How did people react to this?

As you can imagine, the FCC was pretty pissed. They spoke on air to news stations about the incident and threatened to track down whoever committed this act of random brain poop and bring them to justice.





TV viewers at home who were subjected to Max's broadcast were also pretty ticked. Both stations got numerous calls and complaints. One man who was interviewed even claimed that it made him want to punch his television set.

If that sounds a bit drastic, keep in mind that this was before the internet that we know and love today. People watching Dr. Who when the signal intrusion occurred couldn't just go find the episode later online. They also couldn't do a Google search and to try and understand what the heck just happened (not that it would have helped them much, anyway).

It was jarring, a bit terrifying, and it ruined an episode of great television. 


How did someone do this?

The people who did this (we'll assume it was at least two due to the flyswatter footage) were able to send a stronger signal and override those being broadcast from both the John Hancock Center (WGN) and the Sears Tower (WTTW). 

What's even more impressive, however, is that the large amount of equipment needed to pull off such an operation would have cost in the range of $25,000...in 1987. In today's dollars most assuredly be much more. 

And even if Max and his crew could somehow just rent all the technology needed to pull off their stunt (which would still be a very expensive proposition), it would have to be done from the rooftop of an adjacent building, an incredibly powerful ground generator, or from the rooftop of one of the buildings themselves.

...which brings us to our next question:


Why did someone do this (and what was the point)?

The people that pulled this off were clearly well financed and incredibly tech savvy....so you would figure that the chance to broadcast your message to the people of Chicago during prime Sunday evening TV viewing hours would be the perfect opportunity to say or do something really profound indicative of their impressive intelligence.

Instead, we got what looked like an adderall and ritilan induced fever dream along with a lot of incoherent babbling and pop culture references. For a juvenile prank, this was an incredibly massive undertaking. It also carried a lot of risk; a man who had recently hijacked HBO's signal was easily tracked down and brought to justice.

But to this day, no one involved in the Max Headroom broadcast intrusion incident has ever been identified or caught. That means that they are most likely still alive and cackling hysterically every time it gets brought up as one of the biggest (and most bizarre) pranks in history...

...or maybe with today's technology and their already proven know-how, Max and Company are waiting for the right time to pull off something even bigger.


Sweet dreams!

For an entertaining (and short) documentary from Oddity Archive on this incident, click here.

Please feel free to leave a comment below. If you'd like to sing my praises or tell me how terrible I am more personally, I can also be found on Twitter.

To get updates on when new articles or podcasts are published (and occasional random musings) 'Like' the official RamblingBeachCat.com Facebook page. Every time someone does, Max Headroom decides to wait until Dr. Who is over before hijacking a broadcast signal.