The Great Broadcast Hack

How a Rubber-Faced Faux Max Headroom Put Fear in the Hearts of Chicagoans

by Kerrie Mills

20 June 2011

C-c-c-atch the wave as a Max Headroom impersonator makes Chicago TV his personal playground.

The notion of television ‘broadcast intrusions’ is one of the great dark, edgy, paranoia-inducing concepts of our time… and we are not just limiting this to people who write their concerns in chalk on sidewalks. Even television viewers who don’t wear tinfoil are uniquely vulnerable to the creepiness of the idea: after all, until now the box has been your willing partner in a soothing, predictable, well-regulated existence, probably involving nothing more mind-altering than Coors Light, until suddenly—


A hacked interruption ala Eyes Only of Dark Angel ... only kinkier. 
Footage of the aliens landing or subliminal mind control or heads exploding or who the hell knows what. Literally. At least with serial killers you’ve got a decent idea of what’s about to go down, you know?

Given all this, it comes as both a distinct relief and a major letdown to learn that—thanks in part to the sheer difficulty of the feat, which requires powerfully (and expensively) sophisticated equipment—the reality is far more mundane, and mostly confined to the accidental. Or at least impersonal. I mean, it’s distressing and all for the young minds exposed to porn in their Disney Junior programming, but their heads are far more likely to actually explode later in life, while contemplating Handy Manny‘s relationship with his talking tape measure.

Turning to cases where people have actively broken into the idiot box for their own nefarious ends, we find… not so much with the nefariousness. A few purveyors of propaganda, a few Soviet pirates messing about with the official channels… and a 1986 protest against high cable fees. Although, as I recall that incident, it did have a satisfyingly (Rocket) Robin Hood-esque feel to it—at least until they caught the guy bragging in a very public phone booth. Nice one, ‘Captain Midnight’.

Then there was the gang from the planet ‘Vrillion’, that cut into the (distinctly unsophisticated, as it turned out) audio of the Southern Television early news, the better to hold some farmers in thrall to a ripoff of the climactic speech from The Day the Earth Stood Still. Because, y’know, won’t somebody think of the sheep?! Anyway, klaatu barada nikto to you too, kids.

No, in the great history of hacking there has only been one moment when the possibilities of TV hijacking hijinks were fully, completely, and frankly mind-bendingly realised. I refer, of course, to what Wiki calls the Max Headroom Broadcast Intrusion… and what the rest of the Net calls The Time That Dude in the Rubber Mask Took Over Chicago, and, Like, Dude.

[ahem] The facts. It’s unlikely Max Headroom has crossed your mind recently, so you might want to have a refresher. Go there for that refresher. But be sure to come back. For those of you who hate links: mid-‘80s C64 graphics. Matt Frewer. New Coke. Right… sorry about that.

OK. So it’s November 1987 in the Windy City, and Max is at his c-c-c-celebrity peak, because they’ve just cancelled his TV show. Not that anybody connected with WGN’s nine o’clock sportscast cares about that—until, right in the midst of the Bears highlights, the picture is replaced by a guy in a rubber Max mask standing before a corrugated-metal version of Max Headroom’s original backdrop. The imposter is waving his hands in the air. No audio; just 30 seconds of silent boogying, or as long as it took WGN engineers to switch feeds from the blocked one. Back to the poor flustered newscaster: “If you’re wondering what happened, well, so am I!”

Two hours later, PBS station WTTW is showing the Fourth Doctor-era Dr. Who ep Horror of Fang Rock... and, uh? Station break? Didn’t realise this was pledge we—AHHHHHHHHH WHAT THE HELL?!?!

Yep, rubber-mask Max is back, and this time he’s feeling chatty. Since WTTW’s engineers either weren’t as quick or as capable (reports vary), you can catch his entire 90-second manifesto here. Mildly NSFW.

Basically, RMM natters on for awhile like your college roommate at the end of the party, tossing Pepsi cans around and humming the Clutch Cargo theme; then he drops trou and gets spanked with a flyswatter by an accomplice in a dress. And then, the Who ep resumes… with the Doctor intoning As far as I can tell, a massive electric shock, he died instantly!

For one of the very, very few times in television history—and the last to this day—somebody had personally hijacked a major American station broadcast. Two of ‘em. In one night. Hey, legends have been based on less… well, I can’t think of any offhand, but there have to be some.

As you’d expect, Chicago media and the FCC weren’t feeling much like handing out laurels. Rubber-mask Max faced a $100K fine and a year or so in jail ... if caught.

But he never was. In what is possibly the creepiest detail of the whole crazy, creepy mess, no trace of him or his accomplices was ever found. Not even a boast among the hacker underground.

The combination of serious tech know-how and daring in the execution—details are sketchy, owing to copycat discouragement, but see above re: expensive and sophisticated—and goofiness in the message, gave the whole a surreal fascination that persists to this day. Who the hell pulls off the hacker coup of a lifetime in order to rag on Chuck Swirsky??

Maybe RM-Max was actually a disgruntled fan, runs one theory I rather like. If you’ll recall, the real show was about a dystopian future in which commercial TV was the All-Powerful and the resistance had to spread the word by… hit-and-run signal hacking. Hmmmmm.

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