The Mystery of the Creepiest Television Hack

by CHRIS KNITTEL

Right up until 9:14 PM on November 22nd, 1987, what appeared on Chicago’s television sets was somewhat normal: entertainment, news, game shows.

That night, as usual, Dan Roan, a popular local sportscaster on Channel 9’s Nine O’Clock News, was narrating highlights of the Bears’ victory over the Detroit Lions. And then, suddenly and without warning, the signal flickered up and out into darkness.

In the control room of WGN-TV, the technicians on duty stared blankly at their screens. It was from their studio, located at Bradley Place in the north of the city, that the network broadcasted its microwave transmission to an antenna at the top of the 100-story John Hancock tower, seven miles away, and then out to tens of thousands of viewers. Time seemed to slow to a trickle as they watched that signal get hijacked.

A squat, suited figure sputtered into being, and bounced around maniacally. Wearing a ghoulish rubbery mask with sunglasses and a frozen grin, the mysterious intruder looked like a cross between Richard Nixon and the Joker. Static hissed through the signal; behind him, a slab of corrugated metal spun hypnotically. This was not part of the regularly scheduled broadcast.

Finally someone switched the uplink frequencies, and the studio zapped back to the screen. There was Roan, at his desk in the studio, smiling at the camera, dumbfounded.

“Well, if you’re wondering what’s happened,” he said, chuckling nervously, “so am I.”

Within hours, federal officials would be called in to investigate one of the strangest crimes in TV history—a rare broadcast signal intrusion, with no clear motive, method, or culprits. It may as well have come from another dimension.

To many clued-in TV viewers that night, the face of Max Headroom would have been unmistakable. “The world’s first computer-generated TV host,” as he might have proudly boasted, was a sharp-tongued character inaugurated in 1985 as the veejay for a British music television show. His sarcastic wit and stuttering delivery—along with an ad campaign for New Coke, a late-night talk show on Cinemax, and a few TV specials—had made him a cult personality even before he finally earned his own hour-long TV show in the US.

Max Headroom, which featured the exploits of a TV journalist living in a dystopian future, with a digital alter ego in the form of the title character, debuted on March 31, 1987. In Chicago, it aired on the ABC affiliate Channel 7, and would last for 11 episodes and into a brief second season that fall, before it was canceled, beaten in the ratings by Miami Vice.

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Taken from motherboard.vice.com

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