The Max Headroom Television Hijackings were 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's widely accepted to be an elaborate prank. The hijackers remain at large to this day.
Read the description below.
The first hijacking took place during a news broadcast on now-famed Chicago station WGN-TV. At approximately 9:14 PM CST, a sports broadcast by anchor Dan Roan 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 after only a few seconds when WGN-TV engineers were able to switch the frequency of their studio feed to a different transmitter. Roan returned to the screen, saying, "Well, if you're wondering what just happened, so am I."
WTTW "Doctor Who" Hijacking
The second hijacking took place around 11:15 PM CST on the same night. This hijack briefly took over the regular programming on WTTW (a PBS station) during an airing of the Doctor Who episode "Horror of Fang Rock". Due to the late hour, there were no WTTW engineers available to reroute the signal, leaving technicians to monitor the situation but unable to stop it. A station spokesman later stated that by the time engineers could be dispatched, the incident had ended.
This time, the hijackers were able to successfully transmit their message, albeit with heavily distorted audio. Max mutters pop cultural phrases like "Catch the wave" (the catchphrase of 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 cries out "Oh, my piles!" followed by a flatulence sound, then states, "I just made a giant masterpiece for all the World's Greatest Newspaper nerds." He also hums the Clutch Cargo theme song and states "I still see the X!", a reference to the final episode of Clutch Cargo, "Big 'X'".
After just over a minute of seemingly meaningless non sequiturs, the footage cuts to an image of Max bent over, his naked buttocks exposed in side view, while a woman in a French maid costume spanks him with a fly-swatter. The video then goes black for several seconds before ending.
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, similar to the "Captain Midnight" HBO intrusion incident 19 months earlier. The hijackers may have been using the hijacking as an early form of cyberterrorism 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.
Max's statement about "World's Greatest Newspaper nerds" is a reference to the WGN-TV call-letters (WGN is an abbreviation of "World's Greatest Newspaper"). Similarly, a reference to legendary Chicago sports announcer Chuck Swirsky, and the fact that the initial intrusion was attempted during a sports report, seem to indicate the video was originally intended to be show in its entirety during the first hijacking, taking advantage of WGN-TV's greater broadcasting area and the large audience that would have been watching the evening news. After being almost immediately kicked from WGN-TV, the hijackers may have chosen the more vulnerable target of WTTV without bothering to edit their previous message to WGN-TV. It is also possible they were aware that WTTV would not have on-site technicians available to shut down the hijacking so late at night, but that a large number of viewers would witness the incident due to the popularity of Doctor Who.
On April 10, 2010, a Reddit poster claimed to know the people 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 had been solved. The names of the perpetrators, however, have never been revealed. The person who posted the 2010 post has since nullified his original claims after looking at evidence alongside investigations from Chicago television technicians.
The first hijacking survives in its broadcast form, but with the distorted audio. Due to Doctor Who fans regularly taping the episode airings, many copies of the second hijacking survive in full.
Contemporary and current speculation suggests the two hijackings both used the same footage. However, it's difficult to definitively compare the two broadcasts.
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 the possession of the hijackers. Since leaking the tapes risks revealing their identities, it's unlikely that this original video will ever see the light of day.