Before TV as we know it existed, entertainment didn’t come in a USB stick, a modem, or a cable box. It went through the air. Broadcast waves intercepted by antenna were the standard of television for decades.

Households across the world, not just in America, were used to blocking the signals from radio towers to watch their favorite programs and morning to evening news segments.

In 1987, near the end of the long and very much still alive Cold War era, an incident occurred in Chicago. Two television stations were hacked live on air to broadcast the bizarre antics of a masked man wearing the rubbery visage of the cult TV character Max Headroom.

The pirated broadcast was mostly written off as an unsettling joke in poor taste. It was hard to look at and harder to explain. 

To this day, the culprits still have not been caught. The incident sent reverberations through the world. Most people saw it as a harmless prank in questionable taste, a parody of the then-modern media range that they were interrupting.

Others saw it as a breach of national security, and the fact that it was never resolved remains a contentious point to this day.


10 /10 The Mask Of The Max

Max Headroom was a strange combination of ideas. He was pitched as an Artificial Intelligence character, or the “first computer-generated TV personality,” back in 1985.

Instead, it wasn’t CGI, an actor in prosthetics representing the news anchor of a dystopian future 20 minutes ahead.

Creative video editing makes it seem like he was glitching out and encountering errors such as stuttered speech and extremely rapid movements.


9 /10 The Double Channel Hijack

Two channels were hijacked within a short time of one another. During a sports segment with anchor Dan Roan during a report of the Chicago Bears game, the first was WGN-TV.

The second was on WTTW during an episode of Dr. Who. Although both channels were local to Chicago, they were subsidiaries of more extensive television networks. WTTW was an affiliate of PBS, the largest broadcaster in America.


8 /10 Cultural Combat

The imagery was bizarre and disturbing, mimicking the production of the original Max Headroom in a very crude and practical way. Corrugated metal spun behind the actor, who wore an obvious rubber mask and spoke in exaggerated taunts.

The hijacker talked down to local sportscaster Chuck Swirsky, calling him a “friggin liberal,” and parodied the then-popular Coca-Cola campaign featuring Max Headroom with a can of Pepsi, reciting the same catchphrase “Catch the Wave.”


7 /10 Painfully Short

The hijacking’s last shot involved the actor bending over with his rear end exposed while an accomplice spanked him with a flyswatter just off-camera. A few seconds later, the broadcast was cut, and the channel resumed as usual.

After the disparaging remarks and what would remain the most indecent act on public broadcast television for decades, possibly only eclipsed by the Jessica Jackson Wardrobe Malfunction, it was over.

6 /10 Profoundly Stupid

When the hijacks ended, the networks attempted to resume control as usual. At the time, the news anchor played it off and restarted his report while people behind the scenes handled the after-effects. No further attacks were made on the stations or any others.

The networks began investigating immediately, however, and even reported up to the FCC and the FBI. They were less concerned over what they saw and heard and were more worried over what it meant for their channels’ security.

5 /10 The Stakes Were Raised

The fact that it was done, at all, baffled the leading investigators. The technology used to maintain broadcast signals from stations involved the interception and dispersal of microwaves through satellite antennas stationed incredibly high up. WTTW broadcasted from the top of the Sears Tower, one of Chicago’s tallest buildings.

That meant it was no ordinary independent station that could be intercepted with the same equipment. The perpetrators were reasoned to be connected to high powered tools.


4 /10 The International Scare

Thoughts began to populate that it was a Soviet attack. A test to see if they could override other, more powerful, and far more critical stations to broadcast propaganda, sew paranoia, or even criminally upset communications of emergencies to local people.

The FCC and FBI considered the worst-case scenarios of false reports being leaked that could cause widespread panic.

Entire cities could be shut down from news of an approaching missile. They were only thankful that the breach of national security was wasted on a prank.


3 /10 Primetime Crime

Though the perpetrators were never caught, not even the faintest trail could be found; they did leave a lot of federal agents scratching their heads. The potential fine and punishment for the crime were up to $100,000 and a year in prison, both considered together.

It wasn’t the content or graphic nature of what they did, but rather that they did it at all. The case ran cold up until the statute of limitations expired 25 years later.

As of 2012, even if the Max Headroom Hackers stepped forward, they could only be celebrated as heroes to pranksters everywhere.


2 /10 Fallout Feedback

Attacks on public broadcasts did happen afterward. The perpetrators of any subsequent memorable events were caught and fined and were often shown to be electrical engineers or ex-employees of the stations they hacked.

The Max Headroom hackers proved that it was possible to get on the air and make any declarations that they wanted. It wasn’t legal or safe, but it was a way to be heard, and for many people, that was worth the risk.


1 /10 Headroom For More

Max Headroom had a short-lived career as a flash-in-the-pan idea cited as the first “cyberpunk television series” in its own right. At least two of them, its fans initiated a high tech operation to hijack a formerly secure news station and became world-wide criminals for just two minutes out of the day.

They laid the groundwork for what became the new pranking culture, of getting on TV to say or do outrageous things, getting a message out no matter what the cost or method. And they did it without getting caught.

There is still no news to this day which they were or how they did it. Or what they could have done with that power since…

Continue Reading

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *