The Max Headroom broadcast signal intrusion was a television signal hijacking that occurred in Chicago, Illinois, United States on the evening of November 22, 1987. It is an example of what is known in the television business as broadcast signal intrusion. The intruder was successful in interrupting two broadcast television stations within the course of three hours. Neither the hijacker nor any known accomplices have ever been found, caught or identified, which leaves the incident unsolved. Although, in 2010, an unknown user on the famous online platform Reddit claimed to personally know the people behind this act: in addition, he formulated a very detailed theory about the dynamics of this intrusion and its preparation, but he decided not to mention any names, in order to avoid any problems to his acquaintances.
he first occurrence of the signal intrusion took place during then-independent station WGN-TV (channel 9)’s live telecast of its primetime newscast, The Nine O'Clock News (now known as WGN News at Nine). During highlights from the Chicago Bears’ 30–10 home victory over the Detroit Lions that afternoon in the sports report, the screen went black for 15 seconds, then returned with a person wearing a Max Headroom mask, moving around and jumping. His head was in front of a sheet of moving corrugated metal, which imitated the background effect used in the Max Headroom TV and movie appearances. There was no audio other than a buzzing noise. The hijack was stopped after engineers at WGN switched the frequency of their studio link to the John Hancock Center transmitter.
The incident left sports anchor Dan Roan bemused, saying, “Well, if you’re wondering what’s happened, so am I.” He then unsuccessfully tried to repeat what he was saying before the incident occurred.
Later that night, around 11:15 p.m. Central Time, during a broadcast of the Doctor Who serial “Horror of Fang Rock”, PBS member station WTTW (channel 11)’s signal was hijacked by the same person, apparently, that was broadcast during the WGN-TV hijack, this time with distorted and crackling audio.
The episode of Doctor Who was interrupted by television static, to which an unidentified man appeared, mentioning WGN pundit, Chuck Swirsky, whom he says he is better than as well as calling Swirsky a “Freaking Liberal”. The man started to moan, scream and laugh. He continued to laugh and utter various random and unrelated phrases, including New Coke’s advertising slogan “Catch the Wave” while holding a Pepsi can (Max Headroom was a Coca-Cola spokesperson at the time), then tossing the can down, leaning towards the camera and giving the finger wearing a rubber extension over his middle finger, although it was hard to see the gesture. He then retrieved the Pepsi can, and sang “Your love is fading”, before removing the rubber extension, then began humming the theme song to Clutch Cargo, pausing to say “I still see the X” (though some people claim to have heard “I stole CBS” instead), which referred to the final episode of the series, before resuming humming again. He then began to moan painfully, exclaiming about his piles (a reference to Preparation H), after which an indistinguishable flatulence sound was heard. He then stated that he had “made a giant masterpiece for all the greatest world newspaper nerds” (the WGN call letters used by the Chicago television station as well as its sister radio station are an abbreviation for “World’s Greatest Newspaper”, in reference to the flagship newspaper of their corporate parent, the Tribune Company’s Chicago Tribune). He then held up a glove and said, “My brother is wearing the other one,” and he put the glove on, “but it’s dirty! It’s like you got blood stains on it!” He then threw the glove down in disgust.
The picture suddenly cut over to a shot of the man’s lower torso. His buttocks were partly exposed, and he was holding the now-removed mask up to the camera (with the rubber extension now placed in the mouth of the mask), howling, “They’re coming to get me!” An unidentified accomplice wearing a French maid outfit said to him, “Bend over, bitch!”
The accomplice then started to spank the man with a flyswatter as the man screamed loudly. The transmission then blacked out for a few seconds before resuming the Doctor Who episode in progress; the hijack lasted for about 90 seconds.
WTTW, which maintained its transmitter atop the Sears Tower, found that its engineers were unable to stop the hijacker, due to the high microwave signals that the hijacker was using, as well as the fact that there were no engineers on duty at the Sears Tower at the time of the hijacking. According to station spokesman Anders Yocom, technicians monitoring the transmission “attempted to take corrective measures, but couldn’t.” “By the time our people began looking into what was going on, it was over,” he told the Chicago Tribune. WTTW was able to find copies of the hijacker’s telecast with the help of Doctor Who fans who had been taping the show.
WTTW and WGN-TV joined HBO (which had a similar incident occur 19 months earlier) as victims of broadcast signal intrusion. The Max Headroom incident made national headlines and was reported on the CBS Evening News the next day. WTTW received numerous phone calls from viewers who wondered what was occurring for the duration of the station being targeted.
Not long after the incident, WMAQ-TV humorously inserted clips of the hijacking into a newscast during Mark Giangreco’s sports highlights. “A lot of people thought it was real – the pirate cutting into our broadcast. We got all kinds of calls about it,” said Giangreco.