Sometimes, we witness an incident so unique that it manages to make a permanent impression in our life. Such an incident may be inspiring, hilarious or just plain bizarre. One such bizarre incident occurred on November 22 in 1987, when someone hacked through WGN and WTTV broadcast wearing a Max Headroom mask. No one knows who the intruder was or why he/she did it. To know more about the mystery behind the famous Max Headroom incident, keep reading this article.
On November 22, 1987, someone wearing a Max Headroom mask briefly hijacked WGN and WTTV broadcast in the evening.
November 22, 1987, in Chicago, US was just like any other day. According to the Farmer’s Almanac, the temperature was a pleasant 53 degrees. In sports, The Bears were triumphant over the Detroit Lions with a score of 30 to 10. Then, suddenly, the signals of two broadcast television stations, WGN and WTTV, were interrupted by a hacker in Max Headroom mask speaking barely intelligible English. This weird broadcast signal intrusion is popularly known as the Max Headroom incident owing to the fact that the intruder was wearing a Max Headroom mask.
For those who are wondering who Max Headroom is, try to remember the mid-’80s New Coke ad. Max Headroom was the spokesman for New Coke who delivered the slogan “Catch the wave!”. He was portrayed by Matt Frewer as “The World’s first computer-generated TV host.”
The first hijack took place at approximately 9:14 pm CST during a news broadcast on WGN-TV. The intruder appeared on the screen for about 20 seconds before WGN regained control.
That day, as always, WGN was broadcasting its 9 p.m. news, and WGN sportscaster Dan Roan was on camera discussing the latest sports news. Suddenly, at approximately 9.15 p.m., during the highlights of Chicago Bear’s home victory over Detroit Lions, the sports broadcast was interrupted. The sports highlights were replaced by a distorted, shaking background, an ominous buzzing noise, and the face of a person in a Max Headroom mask and sunglasses. The intruder was moving around maniacally while dancing and bobbing. There was no other audio except the buzzing noise.
The engineers at WGN succeeded in stopping the hijack within 20 seconds by switching the frequency of their studio link to a different transmitter. When WGN’s news broadcast resumed, a visibly nervous Dan Roan said: “Well, if you’re wondering what’s happened, so am I.”
The second hijack took place on WTTW at around 11:15 pm CST on the same night when an episode of Doctor Who was being aired. This time the hijacker was able to air their broadcast for more than a minute before WTTW took over.
The same night at 11 pm, people were enjoying the episode “Horror of Fang Rock” of the popular TV show Doctor Who on WTTW. At around 11.15 pm, again the masked person appeared on WTTW amidst distorted and crackling audio. He was wearing the same Max Headroom mask and sunglasses.
He began by remarking on WGN pundit Chuck Swirsky. Then, he started to moan, scream, and laugh along with uttering random phrases. He also uttered the New Coke’s advertising slogan “Catch the Wave” and the crushed a Pepsi can and tossed it. After then, he leaned towards the camera pointing a partially visible middle finger with rubber extension on it. The man then started singing “Your love is fading”. He removed the rubber extension and began humming the theme song to Clutch Cargo. Suddenly, he paused to say “I still see the X” which is often misheard as “I stole CBS” and resumed humming. Then, he began to moan painfully and exclaimed about his piles followed by a flatulence sound. He stated: “I just made a giant masterpiece for all the World’s Greatest Newspaper nerds.”
The meaningless banter went on for a minute, and then suddenly, the footage cuts over to the image of the man bent over with his naked buttocks exposed in side view. At the same time, a female in French maid costume said: “Bend over, bi**h!” She started spanking him with a fly-swatter as the man screamed loudly. The transmission then blacked out for a few seconds before the episode of “Doctor Who” resumed. The WTTW hijack lasted for about 90 seconds.
WTTW could not reroute the signal because at such late hour there was no WTTW engineer on duty. That’s why the hijack lasted for 90 seconds.
WTTW maintained its transmitter atop Sears Tower. Unfortunately, on that night, there was no WTTW engineers available owing to such late hours. The technicians monitoring the transmission attempted to stop it, but they could not succeed. A station spokesman later stated that by the time engineers could be dispatched, the incident had ended.
This incident made national headlines and it was reported on CBS Evening News. FCC and FBI investigated this event, but it is not known whether they succeeded in solving the mystery or not. The identity of the hijacker is not known till now.
After the WTTW incident, confused viewers started calling the PBS station continuously to voice their concern. The incident gained huge media coverage and even became the national headline the next day. It was also reported on the CBS Evening News.
WGN technicians suspected an inside job and launched their own investigation, but never found out who hacked their airwaves. FCI and FBI also investigated the hijack, but it is not known whether they succeeded or not. On November 2010, a Reddit poster claimed to know the persons behind the hijacking incident. But he nullified his original claim after looking at evidence alongside investigations from Chicago television technicians.
Therefore, till now, it is not known who planned the hijack and why it was done. The person behind the Max Headroom mask also remains unidentified till date.
Speculations of both hijacks indicate that the same footage was used in both cases. But it is difficult to compare both broadcasts.
The broadcast form of the first hijack survives but with a distorted audio. A number of copies of the second hijack have survived due to Doctor Who fans who regularly taped the airings.