The Max Headroom Hacker

Monday, December 10th, 2018

1987. Over thirty years ago. What was going on? Well, in the United States we were in the waning years of the presidency of Ronald Reagan. As a matter of fact, in the summer of this year, Reagan made an impassioned speech about tearing down the Berlin Wall, right in front of the Berlin Wall. The same year, Mike Tyson was knocking out every opponent that had the guts to challenge him. ALF hacked into the television ratings to make “Polka Jamboree” the number one television program in the nation. And, if that wasn’t enough excitement to keep everyone entertained, Chi-Town was introduced to…


The guy popped up on the TV screens for anyone who watched or recorded the Doctor Who episode called “The Horror of Fang Rock” on WTTW, Channel 11 in Chicago. Seeing it now, and understanding the context, it makes me laugh. However, if I would have watched it the night it happened, I would have emptied my bowels and hid in the closet for the next month. This was absolutely hilarious and sheepishly creepy at the same time. Of course, this was actually his second appearance. His first appearance was on the higher-audience WGN network. It was only about 30 seconds, and I guess they couldn’t get the audio to work. Max was doing his shucking and jiving but all you heard was a weird electrical buzzing sound.

The feat was impressive on multiple levels. On one hand, the expertise to take over a major television station in one of the biggest markets in North America, and the willingness to actually go through with the heist, is most impressive. However, to go through the expense and effort to do this and put on one of the most silly, outlandish and nonsensical productions makes the scheme that much more impressive. The perpetrators had no intention of subjecting the viewers to a sociopolitical or religious rant. Although, he went slightly political in that he called WGN sports anchor Chuck Swirsky a “frickin’ liberal”. He didn’t seem to be interested in social justice or anything even remotely resembling a revolution. The perpetrator wouldn’t really be able to brag about doing it to anyone since the punishment would be huge if caught. The only motivation seemed to be prove he could do it. It’s like D.B. Cooper hijacking the Northwest Airlines flight just to make people watch him do a puppet show.

The first thing to note is how everyone seemed to overreact to what was considered obscene. “He put a ‘marital aid’ on his finger”, people would say. Actually, it appeared to me like one of those cheap “E.T.” plastic fingers that were somewhat popular at the time. “He showed his bare buttocks”, was another outcry. Actually, if you watch closely at the end, it is a covering that is supposed to look like a bare butt. It actually looked kind of like a diaper. Anyway, it appeared to keep falling down and “Max” had to pull it up once as did the flyswatter lady (No elaboration – go see the video if you haven’t already). Other than that, “Jesus” was thrown out a couple of times. It actually seems pretty tame in comparison with most of the junk that’s on television today. As a matter of fact, the perpetrator could have used every cuss word in the book, but, instead, he used words like “frickin” (or maybe freakin’) quite a few times. But, the whole thing was looney and borderline insane.

The folks who pulled this off did a pretty good job, considering they 30+ years have gone by and no one has ever been caught. What struck me as odd is that there is no general consensus on how the perpetrator did the hacking. Some people said that it had to be an “inside job” as no one outside of broadcasting would have the skill to do this. Other people said it could be done with some secondhand equipment costing just a few thousand dollars. I would say I generally agree with the second argument. In order to override the original signal, you have to be more powerful. In the internet age, we know that multi-billion dollar corporations have been hacked into. Usually, it is a case of complacency. I think that’s the case here. No one thought it could happen, and so it happened.

Of course, this whole thing is a relic from a much different world. We have moved to more sophisticated and digitally encrypted methods for broadcast television. My guess is the same things would apply to radio, even though radio still exists as an analog broadcast. But, I’m certainly not going to suggest that it could not happen. But I wouldn’t hold my breath for the Max Headroom masked man to appear on my television in the future.

By the way, is anyone else shocked that the guy in the Max mask, as neurotic and insane as he appeared, could keep his mouth shut for 30 years and not brag about this to his best friends?


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