Monday, February 7, 2011

Weird Moments in TV History: The Max Headroom Broadcast Signal Intrusion Incident

Not all pirates wear eye patches and talk funny. Some dress up as characters from TV shows, hijack broadcast signals and troll people who are just trying to watch the news.

This is what happened on November 22, 1987. Sports anchor Dan Roan was live on The Nine O’Clock News on WGN in Chicago, narrating video of the day’s football highlights. The picture on the station monitors, as well as any TV tuned to WGN, suddenly began twitching and flickering. Then the clips from the Bears game gave way to static.

From the snow emerged a clear picture of the grinning face of Max Headroom, the titular character of a TV show and pitchman for “New Coke.” More accurately, it was man in a Max Headroom mask, standing in front of a swaying sheet of corrugated metal, awash in the sound of a high, harsh buzz.

The airwave hijacking, known in the television business as broadcast signal intrusion, was stopped quickly when WGN on-site engineers switched the modulation of the studio link to an alternate transmitter and less than 30 seconds later, the Max impostor, having said nothing, having hardly moved, was gone. Viewers were brought back to a visibly flustered Dan Roan saying, “Well, if you’re wondering what happened, so am I.”

The weirdness had only begun. About two hours after the first incident, viewers of the local PBS affiliate WTTW were interrupted in the middle of an episode of Doctor Who. In the middle of a scene, the signal pirate made another intrusion. The picture danced for a second and Max was back in front of the twirling metal panel again. The pirate, this time transmitting with audio, launched into a bizarre diatribe. While his words were distorted, viewers clearly made out several bits, including New Coke’s slogan, “Catch the Wave” (while Max holds a Pepsi can); a remark about sports reporter and announcer Chuck Swirsky; “Your love is fading”; humming of the theme song to TV series Clutch Cargo; and as Max held up a glove, “My brother is wearing the other one.”

After the rant, the picture cut to a shot of the pirate’s exposed butt being spanked with a flyswatter by an accomplice wearing a dress, as he cries “They’re coming to get me!” The transmission then cut to black and returned viewers to Doctor Who with a flash of static.

The second intrusion lased about 90 seconds and WTTW was unable to stop it. Unlike WGN, WTTW had no engineers on location at the transmission tower, which sits at the top of what was then the Sears Tower. By the time technicians could begin to take corrective measures, the incident was over. READ THE REST OF THE STORY HERE.

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