30 Years Later: Revisiting the Pirate Max Headroom Incident
The date was November 22, 1987. WGN-TV was in the midst of broadcasting the Nine O’Clock News. Unexpectedly, the sports segment was interrupted by a pirate signal and a masked figure briefly appeared on television screens around the city. The interruption was over in less than 20 seconds. Sportscaster Dan Roan echoed the thoughts of viewers when he said: “well, if you’re wondering what’s happened, so am I.”
The figure appearing on the screen would have been familiar to consumers of the 80s. It was a rubberized version of the character Max Headroom. The computerized talk show host was originally developed for a British cyberpunk TV movie called Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into The Future. He caught on in the United States as the spokesman for New Coke and as the star of a short-lived sci-fi show simply called Max Headroom (he was also the host a Cinemax talk show after the sci-fi show was canceled).
Someone had channeled the character to hack the feed and it wouldn’t be the last time that night.
Two hours later, WTTN was broadcasting a regularly scheduled rerun of Doctor Who. The episode, Horror of Fang Rock, had the Fourth Doctor investigating an erratic electricity flow to a lighthouse. Suddenly, fans saw Tom Baker replaced by the poor man’s version of Max Headroom. The figure bounced on the screen and unleashed a distorted ramble for more than a minute. People have analyzed the video backward and forward over the years with one person attempting to decipher the voice.
The incident remains one of the biggest unsolved pirate broadcasting incidents in history. One of the best deep dives into the Max Headroom Incident was written by Chris Knittel for Vice in 2015. In the article, Knittel investigated the many suspects who have been put forward throughout the years. In the end, the identity of the Headroom hacker remains unknown, but Knittel has one final solid theory presented by founder and curator of the Museum of Classic Chicago Television Rick Klein:
More likely, argues Klein, the perpetrators had a special relationship with WGN. “It’s important to keep in mind that this whole prank was designed for and against WGN.” After a failed attempt to fully break in to WGN’s signal, the intruders took to WTTW. And there are the references to WGN—the mention of Chuck Swirsky and the timing, during the sports highlights, the Tribune, and Clutch Cargo, which used to air on WGN.
“Was it a disgruntled former employee of WGN-TV?” Klein asked. “Or someone who got turned down for a job there? Perhaps an engineer or someone with the technical knowledge and equipment to allow them to pull this off?”
This article originally appeared on UpOut.com on Nov. 22, 2017.