35 Years Ago: Fake Max Headroom Hacks Into a TV Broadcast
The evening of Sunday, Nov. 22, 1987, was almost a celebratory night for fans of Doctor Who. The following day marked 24 years since the British sci-fi classic first aired. While Seventh Doctor, Sylvester McCoy, was the latest incumbent, Chicago PBS station WTTW was rerunning the first episode of the Fourth Doctor adventure. "The Horror of Fang Rock."
Those who had tuned in for the the10-year-old adventure were probably familiar with the concept that anything could happen in the life of a Time Lord, but they weren’t expecting what they saw. A few minutes into the broadcast, the scene featuring an early 20th-century lighthouse faded away, and the face of the fictional AI character Max Headroom appeared.
But it wasn’t really Headroom, played by Matt Frewer, who recently found fame with the character that hosted from “20 minutes into the future.” It was someone wearing a Headroom mask, who proceeded to clown around on the hacked airwaves for about 90 seconds. In those seconds, the masked man spoke apparent gibberish, starting with, “That does it. He’s a frickin’ nerd!” followed by references to local sports commentator Chuck Swirsky, Headroom’s recent commercial for Coca-Cola and words that were difficult to follow. He put on a glove, saying his brother had the other one, made a comment about “world newspaper nerds” and then said, “Whoa! They’re coming to get me!” as he disappeared off-screen and was replaced by a man bending over, revealing his naked ass, which was then slapped by a woman. “Oh, do it!” were the last words heard as the hack ended and replaced by Fourth Doctor Tom Baker back in the lighthouse, announcing, “As far as I can tell, a massive electric shock – he died instantly.”
It was the second intervention of the evening. A little earlier, local news station WGN-TV experienced a 30-second outage when the same figure appeared, although no sound was broadcast at that time. Together, the event made headlines across the world and became known as the Max Headroom signal hijacking – even though the Headroom element was nothing more than a mask.
Watch the Max Headroom Hack
WTTW broadcast director Paul Rizzo later recalled his horror as the moment unfolded. “All of a sudden we don’t have Doctor Who on the air—we have this Max Headroom mask,” he said. “And as the content got weirder, we got increasingly stressed out about our inability to do anything about it.” Colleague Al Skierkiewicz added that “it had to be a broadcast engineer, a satellite engineer or a ham radio operator. And probably a combination of at least two of those in order to pull this off.”
In 2019 Swirsky told the Endless Thread podcast that he was inundated with calls after the interruption, which he didn't watch. “‘Hey, did you just hear … ’ or ‘Did you see?’” he was asked. “‘What are you talking about?’ ‘Max Headroom!’ ‘Yeah, what about Max Headroom?’ ‘Well, I mean, he mentioned you!’ I said, ‘What’d he say?’ ‘He said you were a freakin' liberal.’ … I thought it was a practical joke! ... I really didn’t understand this whole Max Headroom phenomenon. I mean, I really couldn't relate to him. I had no connection.”
Swirsky found himself at the center of media attention for all the wrong reasons. "I had a couple of friends tell me … ‘You better seek protection.’ Whoever did this had to be pretty smart and sharp to do what he did," he recalled. "People started asking me, ‘Well, so in the upcoming election, who are you who are you taking in 1988?’ You know, ‘What are your views on this, this and this?’ You know, I just want to be a guy, just a guy on the street." The Federal Communications Commission launched a criminal investigation, but the perpetrators were never identified. The organization’s Phil Bradford told the media, “It is very serious and we’d like to inform anybody who is involved in this type of thing that it is serious and that we will take every step that we can to find out who is doing it. And once we have determined that, we will make sure that the full extent of the law is carried out.”
Watch the ‘Real’ Max Headroom in Action
Even though the offense carried a maximum penalty of $100,000 and prison time – the law had changed since the Captain Midnight jamming of HBO the previous year – several people over the years have laid claim to the stunt. In 2010 a Redditor said he knew who did it, providing what he hoped would be enough detail to be believed, although he refused to name anyone involved just in case it landed them in court. He said he was in the company of brothers “J’ and “K” the same evening, and they suggested he tune into WTTW later. What he saw convinced him that “this is the sort of humor that J loved,” the Redditor wrote. “All of his jokes, constantly, involved something childish and/or sexually deviant. The video, for all intents and purposes, is a perfect reflection of J’s sense of humor. Scattered, nervous and comically sexually deviant.”
A few years later, he noted that both J and K were ruled out of having broken the law. By that time, documentary maker Chris Knittel had carried out an investigation, claiming that someone at the FCC’s head office had more information than his boss would allow released. “According to him, his hands were tied behind his back,” Knittel said. “He did have what he thought was a credible idea of where they broadcast their transmission, where they sent their signal out. But someone who he would not name, specifically who he worked with … did not want him to go and pursue that, did not want him knocking on doors.” Asked why that was the case, he responded, “That I don’t know.”
He added that “one area I didn’t explore fully was there was a lot of layoffs in the months prior to the incident. To me, I feel like it's most likely someone who is a former broadcast employee in whatever capacity. But there’s no hard evidence out there.”
Like the best conspiracy theories – and perhaps like a Doctor Who story, where the unwitting world will never know it’s been saved from destruction by an alien threat – the Max Headroom incident remains unsolved.