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AUTHOR'S NOTE:  What follows was originally submitted to Bleeding Cool for it to run on November 22, 2012.  Instead, the article clearly got spiked, which is too bad, but that's how it goes.  However, as I retained the rights, I can put it here on my blog so you can experience the awe-inspiring (and just a smidge distrurbing) story of the Max Headroom Broadcast Intrusion.  Enjoy.

Technology is a beautiful thing.

It makes things much easier, both from a work perspective, and from a play perspective.

Nowadays, thanks to YouTube and Facebook and dozens of sites, people can become video stars with a camera and some video editing software.  Putting their work out for people to see couldn't be simpler.

But there was a time, not long ago, when doing something like that wasn't so simple.  It took smarts.  It took talent.  It took planning to keep the fuzz from coming for you.

It's the 25th anniversary for us Chicago area Doctor Who fans of a notorious incident in television history.  I was in high school.  Doctor Who ran on Sunday nights at 11PM and usually complete stories or episodes of three or more edited together.  Way too late for me to stay up on a school night, so I usually bummed tapes off of friends.  I read both Chicago papers every day, a habit I started in the fifth grade.  And on Monday, I saw the headline on the front page – someone had hijacked the broadcast signal for Doctor Who and broadcast about a minute and a half of themselves in a Max Headroom mask going full derp.  In short order, I found someone who had a tape, and he brought it to me the next day.  I had to see this for myself.

(AND NOW, A STERN WARNING TO YOUTH:  Hijacking a signal is considered a felony in the US and is punishable on conviction by up to ten years in prison and $250,000 in fines.  So don't try this at home.)


For those not versed in Chicago lore, or even are lost on some of the obscure references, let me translate for you.  Chuck Swirski was a play-by-play announcer on WGN radio for the Chicago Bulls and DePaul Blue Demons basketball teams (WGN was also targeted by the broadcast intrusion, which I will get to anon.  It is owned by the Tribune Company, whose slogan for their Chicago Tribune was “the world's greatest newspaper.”  The jammer calls back to this when he mentions, “I made a giant masterpiece for all the greatest world newspaper nerds”).  “Catch the wave” was the slogan for Coke's ad campaign starring Max Headroom, the Pepsi can is just another riff.  The music he hums and “I can still see the X” is a reference to the final episode of the “cartoon” show Clutch Cargo (you may remember it as the show where the cartoon characters had real lips).  The result on this viewer is always a stunned reaction, as if I'd just seen William Shatner as Moses in The Ten Commandments.

This is known in the industry as a “broadcast signal intrusion”.  Although not overly difficult, it still required a certain amount of planning and technical skill.  FM radio was a frequent target of culture jammers due to its relative ease.  All someone needed to do was broadcast a more powerful signal on the same frequency and they were on the air (more enterprising gents would actually break into the broadcast station's property and splice their own audio line into the feed).

Television required slightly more sophisticated equipment, but the execution was essentially the same.  Once the frequency of the studio-to-transmitter link was discovered, intruders aimed a higher powered signal using a microwave signal generator at the station's receiving dish.  The generator is easy to make for the experienced electronics nut – they could conceivably build one after rooting through the trash at Radio Shack.  The larger stations nowadays encrypt their signals, but they can still be jammed, and plenty are still vulnerable out there.

The quest to leave radio behind and play the Big Room started in 1977, probably inspired by the wave of broadcast intrusions popping up like dandelions in the USSR through the 70's and 80's.  The United Kingdom's Independent Broadcasting Authority had a television transmitter on Cottington Hill just outside Hannington, in the county of Hampshire.  It was more or less a relay, rebroadcasting an off-air signal from Southern Television's Rowridge transmitter on the Isle Of Wight.  The distance made the received signal weaker, and easier for someone close to the tower with low powered equipment to override.  Hannington is a very small community of just over 300 people, perfect for people seeking to create mischief without drawing attention to themselves.

On November 26, 1977, at about 5:10PM, the audio signals for the UHF feeds were intercepted, and a six minute transmission began.  The speaker identified himself as “Vrillon” of the “Ashtar Galactic Command.”  Maybe.  The buzzing in the background and voice disguise made some words hard to decipher.  (In fact, the News Of The World and D. Mail said the message had the aliens threatening war with Earth.  If you are wondering why aliens don't contact Earth, it's because they know we have spin doctors.)  The message was “Day The Earth Stood Still” stuff, that man had to put down weapons and learn to live in harmony.  A complete transcript was published in the Fortean Times #24 (Winter 77).  To date, the identity of the hijacker has not been found.

Side note:  some people question if this really was a hoax or not.  Don't get me wrong, I believe in the paranormal.  But I think any “alien” message delivered with a local accent should at least send up some red flags with the listener.

The Southern Television broadcast intrusion was a strange happening and urban folklore, the only other notable incident happening in Poland in September 1985 supporting the Solidarity labor movement.  The four men responsible were caught.  Meanwhile, in America, all was quiet on the Western front.  That is, until 1986.  At 12:32 AM Eastern Time on April 27, HBO's broadcast of The Falcon And The Snowman got jammed by someone calling himself Captain Midnight.  The perpetrator was John R. MacDougall of Ocala, Florida.  MacDougall sold satellite dishes for a living (still does, in fact), which at the time enabled people to pick up cable TV signals from broadcast satellites and watch for free.  Cable channels started scrambling their signals, making business for people like MacDougall plummet.  MacDougall took a second job as a master control operator at a satellite teleport in Florida, and used his position to broadcast a roughly five minute message to the East Coast, a simple title card over color bars saying, “Goodevening HBO from Captain Midnight  $12.95/Month ? No way! [Showtime/Movie Channel beware!]”  $12.95 a month?  That's a better deal than I currently get.  Anyway, MacDougall probably would have gotten away with it if he had just kept his mouth shut.  A phone call from a phone booth near a rest area in Gainesville, Florida, said MacDougall was bragging about it, and the Nazgul descended upon him.

Further seeds were sown in September 1987.  Thomas Haynie was an employee of the Christian Broadcasting Network, and he hijacked the signal for Playboy TV.  He left behind an obvious trail of evidence, and the feds had no trouble catching him.

Then, November 22.  A day that will live in infamy.

The Max Headroom incident started at WGN-TV.  It was the middle of the sports report when the intrusion began, although only video was seen, the audio didn't make it.  Technicians realized what was happening and simply switched transponders, meaning only about 25 seconds of the hijacker made it on the air.  Once the signal was back under control, sports anchor Dan Roan could only say, “Well, if you're wondering what happened, so am I.”

The hijacker, however, wasn't finished.  In fact, he was just getting warmed up.  Chicago's public television station, WTTW (channel 11) was running its usual Doctor Who show.  That night's episode was the Tom Baker story “The Horror Of Fang Rock.”  At about 11:15PM, the signal got jammed.  By the time technicians at WTTW realized what was happening, the intrusion was over.  Whovians around Chicago sent their tapes to WTTW and the feds for investigation (one tape made it into the hands of sports anchor Mark Giangreco at WMAQ-TV, who had technicians insert scenes of the hijacker at various points during his sports broadcast.  “A lot of people thought it was for real – the pirate cutting into our broadcast.  We got all kinds of calls about it,” he said)  But it was all for naught.  The hijacker has never been identified.

Since then, broadcast intrusion has kind of fallen out of favor.  It still pops up once in a while, like with the people who broadcast porn on the Disney Channel in 2007 or during the Super Bowl in 2009.  The effects are far more limited now, and some people do get caught for it.

But for those of us in the Chicago area, we cannot watch our DVD of “The Horror Of Fang Rock” without a certain scene beginning and us anticipating someone controlling the transmission...they control the horizontal...they will control the vertical....

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