On the night of November 22, 1987, Dan Roan covering the Detroing Lions defeated by the Bears which was his usual spot during Channel 9’s news segment, doing it for years.
The first hijack of Max Headroom Incident
But no one knew tonight was going to be different as suddenly at 9:15, Dan Roan disappeared, in fact, everything disappeared from the American television broadcast that night and it flickered into darkness for nearly 15 seconds.
What appeared after that was not just shocking but creepy as well. A mysteriously dressed creepy character wearing a rubber mask and sunglasses, looking like the AI character Max Headroom along with a simulated grey background broadcasted on the American televisions.
The sound was hardly audible but whatever it was on the screens that night was scary. The figure that just appeared started bobbing around with the creepily rotating background and a weird buzzing sound.
The shocking scene appeared on the screen for around 30 seconds after which the signal engineers at WGN broadcasting Channel 9 switched to another transmitter, bringing back Dan Roan on the screen again.
As confused as the audience, Dan Said, “If you’re wondering what just happened, … ha ha …So am I.”
Finding the severity of what just happened, the engineers at the studio, considered the hacking an inside job and as a quick action started searching the whole building for the masked hijacker.
However, their search was unsuccessful, as the broadcast turned out to be a pre-recording from a third party at a separate location.
The second hijack of Max Headroom Incident
As if the first appearance of creepy Max Headroom was not enough, it appeared back again on the same night around 2 hours after the first incident, but this time on Channel 11. The WTTW was broadcasting the episode of Doctor Who titled “The Horror of Fang Rock” when the second transmission cut out happened.
At around 11:15 pm, the same flickering happened following the familiar masked man bobbing on the screen with the grey rotating background, but unlike the first incident, this time the sound was audible.
There were shocking remarks made by the figure this time, while most of the viewers found it funny, the government didn’t.
Followed by “He’s a fricken nerd.”, said the masked man, and later mentioning a WGN pundit, Check Swirsky, claimed to be better than himself.
The figure didn’t just stop there, it recited the Coca-Cola slogan — “Catch The Wave”. Now, interestingly at that time, Max Headroom was being used as a spokesperson for Coke. The possible reason behind choosing Max Headroom for this hijacking incident by the hijacker was because of the fact that Max Headroom was an artificial character and how creepier it can be using such character to hijack the television broadcasting while most of the Americans are watching.
Later on, the figure got even creepier, flipping the camera and his middle finger covered using a rubber extension, singing “Your love is fading” from The Temptations — I’m Losing You. Followed by weird muttering, screaming phrases from TV shows of that time, and beginning to moan.
He even mentioned Michael Jackson, in a creepy way, of course, holding up a glove similarly as Michael Jackson popularized, and exclaimed “My brother is wearing the other one.” followed by “But it’s dirty! It’s like you got bloodstains on it!”
The camera then moved to shot of a man’s bottom partially exposing his buttocks, and the Max Headroom mask was removed and being held up to the camera, while the rubber extension he was wearing had been stuffed inside the mask’s mouth.
They are coming to get me! — The man screamed suddenly, and a female voice saying “Bend over, bitch!“. The figure was seen being spanked repeatedly with a flyswatter.
How Max Headroom character hacked the broadcast?
The hacking of broadcast in the Max Headroom incident was not very technical at least, the whole incident lasted for a total of 1 minute and 22 seconds before the transmission was back in control. It was found out that during the transmission hijack, the WTTW transmission tower had no engineers stationed for the duty. If someone had been there, the signal could have been stopped way earlier.
The copies of the whole hacking incidents were caught by Doctor Who fans who were taping the episodes on their VCRs. While most of the viewers were confused, some were also upset that their show had been interrupted. Some found the hack to be funny but at least that’s not what the government accepted.
A reward to anyone who finds information on the mysterious masked figure was offered by the FCC, the agency that regulates the airwaves. Phil Bradford, a spokesperson from FCC mentioned that anyone involved in the incident will face a penalty of $100,000, and one year in jail, or both.
It wasn’t a very frequent felony to hack the broadcasting that time, but due to previous incidents that have happened, FCC was ready to take strict actions against the faces involved in the incident. Yes, this was not the first time the broadcasting was hacked.
Although FCC figured out that the hacker wouldn’t even need very expensive equipment to hack the broadcasting but just good timing and positioning. But eventually, despite all the efforts and assumptions, the hacker behind the whole incident was never caught.
The rumors and Max Headroom Legacy
Even with finding most of the evidence related to the incident, the most important one remained a mystery — who was the man in the mask?
With lots of people still confused and wondering who possibly could be behind Max Headroom incident, the actual people behind it decided to fade, not wanting to draw any more attention as the whole incident was already gaining a lot of coverage, and whoever was behind surely didn’t want to be caught!
Although, many years after the hijacking, the topic still remains one of the most interesting on the Reddit threads as being mysterious and unsolved. Most popular names that appeared on these forums and threads were Eric Fournier, the man behind Shaye Saint John’s creation, a fictional model who recreated her body from mannequin parts after a brutal car accident.
Although those who knew Fournier denied him behind the Max Headroom hacking as Fournier had little to no knowledge or experience with broadcasting systems and he was not even in Chicago at that time.
However, Max Headroom hack was not the first incident that involved hacking the broadcasting. The first hacker to hack the broadcast signals was Captain Midnight, hacking the system to show his own custom text messages, based on his anger towards HBO, for raising its prices.
On April 27, 1986, he hacked the broadcast signals and a message was appeared on the screens with white texts, nearly for about 5 minutes before HBO regain the signals.
Right after this first incident, the U.S. government had to take action, worried about amateur satellite hacking. Interestingly, around 200 people came forward to confess the credit for Captain Midnight’s work, however, FCC didn’t find any of those to be the real Captain Midnight.
But in this case, the hacker was found to be John R. MacDougall, and operation engineer who formerly worked at Central Florida Teleport uplink station. Since hacking was kind of new felony, he was fined for $5,000 and was put on probation, along with his radio license being suspended for a year.
Although after the Max Headroom incident, the felony becomes severe, and stakes were much higher if found guilty in such cases.
It became difficult for the hackers to pull off a “Broadcasting hack” these days but still, it was successfully done in the 21’s century.
In 2007, viewers watching the “Handy Manny” cartoon on Disney Playhouse found themselves watching porn. A similar incident also happened in 2009.
Despite every measure hackers take for not being traced, the chances are high that they will be caught in an attempt to hack the broadcasting signals. But the Max Headroom hack still remains at the top in American unsolved cases.