17 August 2008

Sunday Mystery: The night Max stole the airwaves

Tapping into a television transmission and pirating its signal hardly seems worth the effort. Though the process is straightforward, the amount of power needed to commandeer the signal of a commercial broadcaster is hardly insignificant; one must overpower the origi
nal transmission to jam its signal. And then punishment for getting caught hardly seems worth the bother. You’re looking at some steep fines and possibly some time in the clink. Don’t bother with any illusions about your stealthiness: tracking the origin of the signal is easy enough, as the pirate is forced to set up shop within the vicinity of a trasmitter site.

In the past, such acts of broadcast piracy have shown a decidedly political bent. One broadcast in 1980s Poland issued messages of solidarity with the Solidarty Movement. Similar transmissions are known to have been broadcast in the Soviet Union. Falun Gong has cut into Chinese television programs. When the Playboy Channel was hacked in the late 80s, it was the work of a Christian Fundamentalist. In the U.S., most perpetrators are found.

Which is probably why the story of the Max Headroom affair lingers in o
ur collective near-consciousness. On November 22, 1987, two Chicago stations’ signals were comandeered by a man in a Max Headroom mask. The first incident, lasting only several seconds, cut into the sports report on WGN news. No audio was broadcast, and the station switched their link to cut off the hijacker. A couple hours later he struck again over at the local PBS affliate WTTW, interrupting their showing of Dr. Who.

This time the entire message was broadcast, with audio, as there were no engineers on duty to cut it off. What followed was a bizarre 90 second message filled with rambling nonsequiturs, pop culture references, and rude all
usions to WGN. The video culminated with Max having his ass smacked with a flyswatter by a female accomplice. And before anyone could process what they were seeing, it was all over. The screen faded to black before Dr. Who resumed. Viewers were obviously left a bit baffled and more than a little creeped out.

The hijacker left no clear motive for the attack, and it remains the last recorded intrusion on American television. The person behind the stunt has never been identified by authorities and has been understandably reluctant to step forward on his own. In all, the events that evening in Chicago amount to nothing more than a victimless crime, a bizarre stunt carried out by a bored geek or a disgruntled ex-employee. It remains known today as much for its sinister appearance as for its seemingly randomness.

Naturally, footage has found its way to Youtube.

Here's a good article about it

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