It seems unlikely that someone could hijack a television broadcast without being traced and eventually tracked down, but in November of 1987, a man wearing a Max Headroom mask did just that. The event that viewers in Chicago witnessed remains a mystery to this day.
It was just after 9PM on Sunday, November 22, and windy city sportscaster Dan Roan was covering the Bears' 30-10 victory from earlier in the afternoon on Channel 9 News. Then, out of nowhere, television sets went silent and screens went pitch black for 15 seconds. Many assumed the station was experiencing a brief technical difficulty, but what happened next confirmed that was not the case.
When the picture finally reappeared, there was a man wearing a Max Headroom mask. Max was a witty, fictional artificial intelligence character from the 1980s known for his distorted, electronically sampled voice that often stuttered.
Purple and black lines spun in the background, while the masked man stood front and center, with yellow skin, yellow clothes and slick yellow hair. Opaque sunglasses covered the eyes of the plastic face stuck in a state of laughter, as the individual bobbed and tilted from side to side.
The screen went pitch black again, and Roan reappeared obviously confused, stating "Well, if you're wondering what's happened, so am I." He went on to repeat his report on the Bears victory.
A few hours later, the same sequence of events happened on another channel. This time, Leela was waiting on Dr. Who to bring her a hot drink when static appeared on the screen, followed by the bright yellow figure.
"He's a fricking nerd!" the voice said in a distorted, machine like tone.
"Yea, I think I'm better than Chuck Swirsky," referring to another local sportscaster. "Frickin liberal!"
The next two minutes involved moaning, screaming, humming and a female accomplice appearing on screen. She told Max "bend over, bitch" and proceeded to smack the man's now exposed, bare ass with a fly swatter.
An FCC investigation was unsuccessful in identifying the parties responsible and the Headroom Hack remains unsolved 30 years later as a result.
Motherboard interviewed both Dan Roan and Chuck Swirsky, the broadcasters mocked during the interruption, to get their thoughts and perspective on the now infamous moment.
Roan said when he and other coworkers watched the Max Headroom broadcast, they found it "hilarious."
"To be perfectly honest, I would probably never give [Max Headroom] a second thought, beyond the fact that people email or call me about it probably four, five times a year. So it certainly had an impact on somebody. Maybe not quite so much on me."
Roan was asked whether he thought the hijack could have been orchestrated by former Channel 9 employees or rejected applicants. He suggested the technical prowess they possessed to pull off the hack demonstrated that they should have been employed there.
"I'll tell you what, if some spurned applicants or disgruntled employees figured out a way to do that [signal hijack], they should've been working here in the first place. My guess was it was a couple of tech nerds that made it happen a couple times and then went underground as fast as they could. The FCC was not playing around back then."
When Swirsky was interviewed, he was confused about being targeted and mocked by the masked persona. Although he did not see the live broadcast, friends and family immediately called his house to tell him what they saw.
"I was just baffled, stunned, flabbergasted. I still to this day don't understand why my name was used. Even though I'm a sportscaster, I keep a very low profile. It's not like I'm out there pontificating politically."
The hack has developed a cult following and become part of cyberpunk lore, influencing the movie "V for Vendetta," and Jack Nicholson's portrayal of the Joker.
At the time it happened in 87', the Headroom Hack was a major news story, since the first known television signal hijack in the United States had occurred earlier that same year. It's worth mentioning that each broadcast interruption wasn't a live instance of the man wearing the Max mask, but a prerecorded tape.
Since then, broadcasts have transitioned from analog, to digital and satellite transmissions, making a signal hack more difficult. However, smaller media outlets are still susceptible to hijacks.
A recent example involved a British radio station's signal being intercepted so that a song about masturbation, "The Wanker's Song," could be played in heavy rotation. Talk about a real hijack-off......Nevermind.
What do you guys think about the Headroom Hack? Have you ever seen it, or the movies it influenced? Drop a comment below and let us know.