An Unsolved Midwest Crime: The 1987 Max Headroom Incident
November 22, 1987.
On a chilly Sunday evening across Chicagoland, thousands sat watching Channel 9’s evening news broadcast. During the newscast’s recap of a Chicago win over the Detroit Lions, the screen went dark for a few seconds. Then this image popped up…
For twenty seconds, a person wearing a Max Headroom mask (a familiar pop culture figure in the 1980s) swayed and bobbed on camera, accompanied by a rotating sheet of steel to mimic the CGI background of the Headroom character. There was no sounds, save a few pops and buzzes off-screen.
Then the image disappeared, the screen went black, then popped right back to the Channel 9 news, where a perplexed sportscaster admitted he had no idea what had just happened, quickly blaming it on a computer glitch.Had it ended there, the intrusion would have probably slipped into obscurity. But it didn’t.
Later that same evening, during a PBS broadcast of Doctor Who, the screen went to black once again and the masked Max Headroom returned, along with poorly-rendered audio. At the time, viewers could barely discern what the masked figure was saying, but experts soon translated the bad audio.
It revealed a tangled mess of insults and slogans, starting with an insult to Chuck Swirsky, a popular regional sports announcer. Then the character jumped between different pop culture references, from Coke to Pepsi, to the theme of the cartoon ‘Clutch Cargo’, all the while moaning, laughing and gyrating against the rotating backdrop.
Then came the scatological humor, and a bizarre and darker turn. The masked character let out a howl, then proclaimed his “piles” to be a “masterpiece for world’s greatest newspaper nerds”. The screen abruptly shifted and an unseen woman commenced smacking the masked figure’s bare butt with a flyswatter while he screamed “Do it!” at her.
After that, the screen went black again and Doctor Who popped back up, like nothing had ever happened.
The first pirated broadcast had been stopped by resourceful engineers simply switching to another studio frequency for the feed, cutting off the pirate’s signal. But the second signal slipped through because, at that time of night, no engineers were on duty to perform the switch.
Over thirty years have passed since the signal intrusion, yet the identity and the motive of the TV pirate, now considered the first mass media troll in history, remain a mystery.
Of course, interrupting a licensed signal is a serious federal crime. He or she would be looking at prison time and/or a hefty fine. Chances are, if the perpetrator kept his or her mouth shut about the incident for thirty years, they’ll stay quiet for another thirty, and the person behind the 1987 Max Headroom Broadcast Signal Intrusion will forever stay a mystery.
Want to Know More?
Here’s the entire Max Headroom Broadcast Interruption from YouTube. WARNING: These contain language and content that might be deemed offensive.1st Interruption. 2nd Interruption.
This site almost literally contains every byte and bit of media on the Max Headroom fad in the 1980s.