Bizarro video: the great Max Headroom Chicago TV hijack of 1987. [video]

This article has been updated. Scroll to the end for the update.

This is one of the most bizarre pieces of video I’ve ever seen in my life. (The weirdness begins at 0:30). It went out over millions of TV sets in the Chicago area, first on WGN and then on WTTW, on the evening of November 22, 1987. It was an extremely rare example of what they call in the TV business a “broadcast signal intrusion”–an unauthorized pirate broadcast that literally takes over a specific television frequency.

Here’s what happened. On that November evening more than 25 years ago, at about 9:15 PM, WGN’s local news broadcast was interrupted for about 30 seconds by the Max Headroom image, with just a buzzing noise as audio. Then, two hours later–during the Dr. Who show that you see in the above clip–the pirate signal struck again, this time on WTTW. What you see above is a recording of what actually went out over the airwaves. WTTW was not able to recover its signal. The intrusion stopped by itself, evidently when the pirate shut off his transmitter.

Who did this, or why, has never been explained. Various investigations of the incident turned up nothing. This remains one of the great, and certainly one of the strangest, unsolved mysteries in TV history.

In case you’re not familiar with 80s memes, the character that the broadcast pirate is imitating is Max Headroom, a sort of 80s digital icon who (briefly) had his own television program set in a dystopian future. The waving corrugated metal in the background is intended to resemble the flickering digital backdrop of the real Max Headroom show.

Here’s some more information from an article on the incident from the website Damn Interesting:

It was clear that the fellow had a rare knack for electronics and microwave equipment. WTTW’s uplink antenna was atop the 1,454 foot Sears tower in downtown Chicago, and investigators concluded that the “signal pirate” smothered the legitimate broadcast by sending a more powerful signal to this antenna. According to some experts in broadcasting, a rig of sufficient power could be purchased for about $25,000– or perhaps rented for a few thousand dollars– and the disassembled equipment could be transported using a few large suitcases. Agents believed that the perpetrator either beamed his message from the rooftop of an adjacent building, or that he somehow gained access to a powerful ground-based transmitter. But Max had covered his tracks well, there was no clear indication of how he had executed his sophisticated attack.

As you can see, this was a pretty serious operation. I mean, $25,000 is a pretty spendy price tag for a stunt like this! Who was that masked man who hijacked Chicago’s TV sets that night? We will probably never know, but it certainly is a bizarre incident!

To go to Wikipedia’s write-up on the incident, click the Max Headroom image below.

pirate max

Update

This article was originally published June 6, 2013. On April 24, 2015, I ran this article which described some possibly new evidence that has come to light about the Max Headroom video hijack. Evidently someone has claimed that they pretty much know who did it, but have declined to identify the perpetrators by name. It’s a very interesting story, and a good read even if we can’t be sure it’s true. Fascinating stuff!

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