The Max Headroom Hijack

Written by Enrico Grigoletti

Week 43
TELEVISION

November 22, 1987. It’s 9:14PM and Dan Roan is hosting the Nine O’Clock News on WGN when the signal is interrupted to broadcast the images – with no audio – of a Max Headroom masked man. The same Max Headroom that starred the Coke commercials and Paranoimia by Art of Noise.

The hijack lasts 20 seconds until engineers from WGN switch off the studio signals to the John Hancock Center transmitter.
Two hours later, 11:15PM, an episode from Dr. Who titled The Horror of Fang Rock on WTTW is on air when the signal gets interrupted for a second episode of television hacking. Again Max Headroom, again the same corrugated metal backdrop but this time the interruption lasts way more than the previous episode. Almost 1:22 and this time with audio and sounds. Those that looks like rambling sentences from a computer modified voice are sharp digs to 1980s american television. The same Max Headroom – choosen as the (maybe) accidental character of that performance – is the personification of the cultural choices of that time. Catch The Wave, quoting the same Coke commercial that Headroom is ambassador of. Even the Clutch Cargo theme sang by the television pirate or the references to the same WTTW station. The hack ends with Max spanked by a masked lady. Perfect!

Over the years different theories followed one another, ranging from the deepest conspiracies to the lightest carefree jokes. All convincing theories except – maybe – the one that sees the hijack as a simple joke without any goal: the complexity of hacking a broadcasting system – it’s 1987 – and the sharpness of the messages delivered would automatically exclude that option. The choice of messages clearly underlines the lacks of the whole television and cultural system in US. From a content and a technical point of view. A simple protest that also shook the pillars of FBI that wasn’t able to find the people behind the hacking in over thirty years. Well, FBI’s priorities were different at the time of the hijack but we should consider the sensibility of the US public opinion for what we can consider a violation of the beloved American freedom. Also we should consider the power of television lobbies when it comes to those kind of sensible events.

Then, four years ago, a Reddit post by user bpoag that announce that he knows the people behind the incident, suddenly awaken the interests on the case. In a few days “I believe I know who was behind the “Max Headroom Incident” that occurred on Chicago TV in 1987” is one of the most popular posts on Reddit without even unveiling the real identity of the three – according to the author – people that caused the hack. The post looks reliable for the quantity and the accuracy of details and with the sharp precision that the author easily dismantle the other theories involving other suspected people.
October 11, 2015. A new post by bpoag declares that “J” and “K” are officially eliminated as suspects. Another troll?

The story of the Max Headroom incident is left unsolved, and maybe it’s a good end. Because in the deepness of its senselessness, the 1987 episode represents one of the most accurate criticism to American society.
Right there where they thought it was less vulnerable.