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The 1987 Max Headroom Pirating Incident

yy020The "Max Headroom pirating incident" is the fascinating story of the successful hijacking of two television signals in the Chicago, Illinois area on Sunday, November 22, 1987. This feat was accomplished by a mysterious person wearing a Max Headroom mask who somehow over-rode the station signals and then proceeded to perform an illegal broadcast on live television. The incident began when television broadcasts at two different stations (WTTW and WGN) were interrupted by the hijacker on the same day, only hours apart.

The first incident occurred during the sports segment of the WGN 9:00 p.m. news broadcast; the second incident took place around 11:15 p.m. during a late evening showing by WTTW of an episode of the Doctor Who television show. The hijacker’s motives for the act of piracy remain unclear, but it is possible that he may have held some sort of private grudge against the two Chicago stations that were affected by his broadcasts: he made a direct reference to WGN sportscaster Chuck Swirsky, as well as to hijacked station WGN (known as the “World’s Greatest Newspaper") by referring to the latter as the “greatest world's newspaper nerds.”Later commentary on this event would refer to the hijacker as "a sophisticated video pirate with an unsophisticated sense of humor who managed to override the signals of Chicago's [television] broadcast." And criticism was even leveled at the pirate for not using his "air time" to say something more profound!

The independent genius responsible for hijacking the signal has never been caught or identified. May he live long and prosper!



The first occurrence of the signal intrusion took place during WGN-TV (channel 9)'s live telecast of its primetime newscast, The Nine O'Clock News. During Chicago Bears highlights in the sports report, the station's signal was interrupted for about half a minute by a video of a person wearing a Max Headroom mask, standing in front of a swaying sheet of corrugated metal, which imitated the background effect in the Max Headroom TV and movie appearances. There was no audio, only a buzzing noise. The hijack was stopped after an engineer at WGN switched the modulation of their studio link to the John Hancock Center transmitter.

The incident left sports anchor Dan Roan flustered, saying, "Well, if you're wondering what happened, so am I."


Later that night, around 11:15 p.m., during a broadcast of the Doctor Who serial Horror of Fang Rock, PBS station WTTW (channel 11)'s signal was hijacked using the same video that was broadcast during the WGN-TV hijack, this time with distorted audio. The person in the Max Headroom mask appeared, as before, this time saying, "That does it. He's a freakin' nerd," before laughing and jeering, "Yeah, I think I'm better than Chuck Swirsky. Freakin' liberal."

The unidentified man continued to utter random phrases, including New Coke's advertising slogan "Catch the Wave" while holding a Pepsi can (Max Headroom was a Coca-Cola spokesperson at the time), then tossing the can down, and making an obscene gesture with a rubber extension over his middle finger (the gesture was cut off of the bottom of the screen due to the close-up of the camera) then retrieving the Pepsi can, and saying "Your love is fading", before removing the rubber extension, then began humming the theme song to Clutch Cargo, and stating that he had "made a giant masterpiece for all the greatest world newspaper nerds" (the call letters WGN are an abbreviation for "World's Greatest Newspaper", in reference to the Tribune Company's Chicago Tribune). He then held up a glove, said "my brother is wearing the other one", and put the glove on. He then took the glove off, adding that it was "dirty."

The picture suddenly cut over to a shot of the man's lower torso. His buttocks were exposed, and he was holding the now-removed mask up to the camera while being spanked with a flyswatter by an unidentified accomplice wearing a dress, as the man exclaimed "They're coming to get me!". The transmission then blacked out and cut off, and the hijack was over after about 90 seconds.

WTTW, which maintains its transmitter atop the Willis Tower (then the Sears Tower), found that its engineers were unable to stop the hijacker. According to station spokesman Anders Yocom, technicians monitoring the transmission "attempted to take corrective measures, but couldn't"."By the time our people began looking into what was going on, it was over", he told the Chicago Tribune. WTTW was able to find copies of the hijacker's telecast with the help of Doctor Who fans who had been taping the show.







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