Today I want to tell you about something that is known as the Max Headroom broadcast signal intrusion. On this day in 1987, in Chicago, a person dressed as a character called Max Headroom suddenly appeared on people’s screens in the middle of a television broadcast.
For anyone who doesn’t know, Max Headroom was a popular character of mid-eighties television, first produced for Channel 4 in the UK but who also appeared on US television. He was presented as a sort of CGI character, but before it was possible to create a convincing computer generated human. So it was actually a man called Matt Frewer, wearing heavy prosthetics and a shiny suit made from fibreglass. Max’s voice was digitally altered, would vary in pitch and sometimes get stuck in a loop. Max existed in a dystopian future dominated by television and large corporations. He was uploaded from the memories of a rogue journalist called Edison Carter who was in a coma following a motorcycle accident whilst fleeing from his superiors. The last thing he saw before the accident was a sign in the parking lot specifying the vehicle clearance height, ‘max headroom 2.3m’. The other thing you need to know about Max is that he was, at that time, the advertising face of ‘New Coke.’ If you want to see the real Max Headroom, here he is with The Art of Noise.
But back to November 22nd 1987. People watching the nine o’clock news on WGN-TV and enjoying the highlights from that afternoon’s football game were suddenly faced with a blank screen. This was followed by thirty seconds of a man wearing a Max Headroom mask and sunglasses. He was jumping around in front of a sheet of corrugated metal, which was being shifted about to imitate the background on Max Headroom’s show. It was accompanied by a buzzing sound, but there was no voice. The engineers at the station managed to change the frequency of their broadcast link to the transmitter and cut out the spurious broadcast. The bewildered sports reporter came back with the words “Well, if you’re wondering what happened…so am I”
Later the evening another channel, WTTW, a public broadcast service channel, were showing an episode of Doctor Who, when they too were interrupted by Max Headroom. This time there was sound. Also, no engineers were available to switch the broadcast frequency. It’s rather difficult to make out what he’s saying, as the audio isn’t great. But he does repeat New Coke’s advertising slogan ‘catch the wave’ whilst holding a can of Pepsi. He also presents his middle finger to the camera, over which he is wearing a rubber penis. There’s a bit with a glove, then you see him bending over holding the Max Headrrom mask in front of him with the rubber penis stuck through its mouth. Then he takes his trousers down and a woman comes in and spanks his bottom with a flyswatter. At this point, the broadcasters themselves ended the transmission and Doctor Who reappeared. Plenty of people were videoing Dr Who, so there are recordings of it. You can see one here, along with a possible translation of his message.
The people who did this must have known quite a lot about electronics and microwave links in order to intercept the legitimate broadcast programmes. They must also have had the means to get hold of some pretty expensive equipment, but no one knows exactly how they did it. Despite investigations launched by the Federal Communications Commission and the FBI, the broadcasting pirates were never caught. So nobody knows who it was and, because of the garbled and erratic nature of their message, nobody knows why either.