Earlier this week, BeninSC asked us what diaries we have in our hopper. I didn't mention it in the comment I made, but this is at the very top of my "diary ideas" list. I've been meaning to write about it for months because I find it so interesting and hilarious (not to mention, a little creepy), but every week, something else was either more pressing or easier. So here it is: the Max Headroom Incident. And who knows, some of our older Kossacks who have lived in Chicago might even have some firsthand memories.
Before we get into the Max Headroom Incident, something you might be more familiar with: Max Headroom, a character on the late-1980s British satirical science fiction series Max Headroom. From Wikipedia:
Also:Max Headroom is a fictional British artificial intelligence (AI), known for his wit and stuttering, distorted, electronically sampled voice. He was introduced in early 1984. The character was created by George Stone, Annabel Jankel, and Rocky Morton in the mid-1980s, and portrayed by Matt Frewer as "The World's first computer-generated TV host" although the computer-generated appearance was achieved with prosthetic make up, as the computer technology of the time was not sufficiently advanced to achieve the desired effect. Preparing the look for filming involved a four-and-a-half hour session in make-up, which Matt Frewer described as "gruelling" and "not fun," likening it to "being on the inside of a giant tennis ball."
The classic look for the character was a shiny dark suit—which was actually a fibreglass mould—often paired with Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses. Only his head and shoulders were depicted, usually against a "computer-generated" backdrop of a slowly rotating wire-frame cube interior, which was also initially generated by analogue means—in this case traditional cel animation, though later actual computer graphics were employed for the backdrop. Another distinguishing trademark of Max was his chaotic speech patterns—his voice would seemingly randomly pitch up or down, or occasionally get stuck in a loop. These modulations, achieved with a harmonizer, also appeared when the character was performed live.
The character's personality was partly intended as a satire of insincere and egotistical television personalities—what Rocky Morton described as the "very sterile, arrogant, Western personification of the middle-class, male TV host," but also was "media-wise and gleefully disrespectful" which appealed to young viewers.
The background story provided for the Max Headroom character in his original appearance comes from a dystopian near-future dominated by television and large corporations. The AI of Max Headroom was shown to have been created from the memories of crusading journalist Edison Carter. The character's name came from the last thing Carter saw during a vehicular accident that put him into a coma — a warning sign marked "MAX. HEADROOM: 2.3 M" (i.e., a clearance of 2.3 metres) suspended across a car park entrance.Now, what is the Max Headroom Incident? Follow me below the fold to find out...
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An article on the Chicagoland Radio and Media website calls the Max Headroom Incident "the greatest occurrence of television piracy in history." It took place almost 27 years ago on the Chicago airwaves, on the night of November 22, 1987 (which happened to be Thanksgiving). It has been dubbed the Max Headroom Incident because the pirate donned a Max Headroom mask. The pirate and his accomplice(s) hacked into two Chicago newscasts: WGN-TV first, and two hours later, WTTW-TV.
At 9:14 PM, the pirate made his WGN-TV attack. Just as the channel was about to show footage of a Chicago Bears victory, the signal was interrupted by a dark screen. After a few seconds, Chicago families chowing down on Thanksgiving dinner leftovers were probably quite startled to see the Max Headroom pirate with a background meant to simulate the computer-generated background from the British show. This attack, however, was not very successful, as it simply generated a buzzing sound for about 20 seconds, at which point technicians were able to take the signal back from the pirate. But it's still pretty damn creepy:
The Max Headroom impersonator wasn't through, however. At 11:15 PM, during an airing of Doctor Who, the signal at WTTW-TV cut out, and viewers were again surprised by the Max Headroom mask. And this time, there was audio, although it was garbled and distorted. The WTTW-TV technicians had a much more difficult time getting the signal back, and the attack went on for about 1.5 minutes. To call what happened during those 1.5 minutes bizarre would certainly be an understatement. The pirate's performance art also perhaps reveals clues about why the attack occurred, as the pirate makes fun of WGN and Chicago sportscaster Chuck Swirsky (perhaps a grudge against station?). Here's a transcript of the audio that is discernible, courtesy of Chicagoland Radio and Media:
"That does it... He's a freakin' nerd. (Hee-hee-hee)"And here's the video of the incident (it starts at about 0:40):
"Yeah, I think I'm better than Chuck Swirsky."
(Laughs and moans.)
(Laughs and shows a can of Pepsi.)
"Catch the wave?"
(Throws can of Pepsi forward.)
(More laughs and moans. Picks up a marital aid, brings it toward the camera, and drops it. Picks up can of Pepsi again.)
Sings "Your love is fading..."
(Drops can again. More distorted laughs by "Max." He then mimics the opening theme song to the "Clutch Cargo" cartoon show.)
"I still see the X."
(More mimicking of the "Clutch Cargo" theme song.)
"Ohhhhh-hooo... My files..."
(More laughs and moans)
"Oh, I just laid a giant masterpiece for all the Greatest World Newspaper nerds."
(More laughs and moans. He picks up an old, dirty, over-sized glove.)
"My brother is wearing the other one."
(Puts on glove on his left hand.)
"But it's dirty."
(Pulls off glove, throws it forward)
"Looks like it's got blood prints on it!"
(The scene then cuts away to "Max" leaning to his right with his pants pulled down, exposing his left buttock. Instead of wearing the Max Headroom mask, he is now holding it at his side facing the camera, with a marital aid protruding from the mask's mouth. A girl whose face cannot be seen, stands behind him holding a wire flyswatter.)
"They're coming to get me!"
"Bend over, bitch."
(The girl pretends to spank the top of his rear end with the flyswatter while he moans and screams.)
"Oh, do it!"
(More screams from "Max.")
And thus ended a very, very weird night for Chicagoans, many of whom flooded the stations with calls about the incident.
How the pirate pulled the hijacking off remains a mystery, although there are theories. From Chicagoland Radio and Media:
The most probable way of achieving what they did was by use of highly sophisticated and expensive microwave equipment, used at extremely high power levels. The pirates were most likely located in a very tall building in downtown Chicago, somewhere between the John Hancock building, where the WGN-TV transmitted from, and the Sears (now Willis) Tower, where WTTW-TV transmitted from. Within that tall building's location, the pirates would then have to aim their microwave dishes at the transmitting antennas in order to overpower them. The pirates would have to been well versed in how to use this large, commercial-grade equipment and would have required and incredible amount of electricity to make it work. It would take more than just a young prankster to make the piracy work. These culprits would need to posses a great knowledge of broadcasting mechanics, signal flow, power levels, and microwave technology.Never caught in spite of a manhunt led by the FBI and FCC. From Mental Floss:
A similar theory has the pirates not in a tall building, but in a van or large vehicle that could have driven near the Hancock Building and Sears Tower, had a clear visual shot of the transmitters and aimed their microwave transmissions at the building's antennae. What is not known is how they would be able to power the equipment to do this from the van.
A very small amount of people would have the knowledge and abilities to pull off a broadcast hijacking stunt like this. Even with clues to who may have done this and how they would have done it, the pirates have never been identified and never caught.
The Federal Communications Commission and the FBI quickly unleashed task forces dedicated to finding and arresting the signal pirate. The perpetrator clearly had a knack for electronics and was somewhere in the Windy City, as the pirate transmission was distributed over WGN's satellite link and WTTW's land-based microwave links. He or she also had some serious bankrolling behind them. Investigators concluded that the pirate smothered WTTW’s broadcast by sending a more powerful signal to the antenna atop the Sears Tower, and equipment with sufficient power to do so would have cost around $25,000.Mental Floss goes on to speculate as to the pirate's motive. As suggested earlier in this diary, perhaps a grudge against WGN, or perhaps a larger message (which might explain the Max Headroom mask).
For what few clues they had to his method, the agencies had even less on the pirate’s motives. There are hints of a grudge against WGN-TV: the station’s call letters stand for “World’s Greatest Newspaper,” a reference to the Chicago Tribune, and the pirate referred to both the “greatest world newspaper nerds” and WGN sports reporter Chuck Swirsky during their second transmission.Whatever the motive, the Max Headroom has long been forgotten by the FBI, FCC, and general public. The case remains unsolved--not that it matters, because the statute of limitations has now passed. The pirate, if still alive, could reveal himself and tell his story without punishment, but so far, nobody has come forward. There has been speculation that the performance artist Eric Fournier was behind the attack, but as Chicagoland Radio and Media notes, it is unlikely.
The choice of a Max Headroom mask alludes to a broader point. The Headroom TV show was set in a dystopian future where evil media corporations controlled the world and people spread messages of freedom by hijacking live television feeds with pirate signals. The pirate’s prank might have then been a comment on the media in general.
Another theory points to the late performance artist Eric Fournier, who often would dress as the gender-bending character "Shaye Saint John" and use a similar voice as "Max." Fournier passed away in 2010, but supposedly told friends he was the "Max Headroom" pirate. Even if he truly did privately say he was behind the incident (there is only hearsay evidence of this), that does not mean he actually was the video pirate. He would often say and do things just for the attention. Fournier was in downstate Indiana at that time and could have potentially traveled three hours north to Chicago to hack into the TV signals. However, he would have had no real connection to WGN-TV or Chicago, or knowledge of much of the subject matter talked about in the video, making him an unlikely subject.In addition, a post appeared on Reddit a few years ago suggesting that a pair of suburban teenagers might have made the attack, which is obviously quite unlikely considering the skill and resources that would have been required to pull it off.
Whoever is actually responsible for the hijacking has certainly earned a place in the history of weird shit. And I'm sure he still haunts a few nightmares.