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The Max Headroom broadcast signal intrusion was a television signal hijacking in Chicago, Illinois, on the evening of November 22, 1987. It is an example of what is known in the television business as broadcast signal intrusion. The intruder was successful in interrupting two television stations within three hours. Neither the hijacker nor the accomplices have ever been found or identified.
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 engineers at WGN switched the frequency 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 various 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 giving the finger wearing a rubber extension over his middle finger (the gesture was cut off at 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 and said, “My brother is wearing the other one,” and he put the glove on, commenting that it was “dirty” along with some unintelligible comments.
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 (with the rubber extension now placed in the mouth of the mask) while being spanked with a flyswatter by an unidentified accomplice wearing a dress; he howls, “Oh no, 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 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.
Not long after the incident, WMAQ-TV humorously inserted clips of the hijacking into a newscast during Mark Giangreco‘s sports highlights. “A lot of people thought it was for real – the pirate cutting into our broadcast. We got all kinds of calls about it,” said Giangreco.
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