Deep into the night during an HBO broadcast of The Falcon and the Snowman in April 1986, subscribers were startled to see the start of the action interrupted by a four-and-a-half-minute transmission from a certain “Captain Midnight.” Over a test pattern, a message appeared:
FROM CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT
NO WAY !
[SHOWTIME/MOVIE CHANNEL BEWARE!]
It was America’s first broadcast signal highjacking. My name’s…
Broadcast signal intrusion is the hijacking of broadcast signals of radio, television stations, cable television broadcast feeds or satellite signals. They are rare, but remarkable. Sometimes the signal jackers have to physically go to a transmitter and splice their feed in. A lot of the time, though, it’s simply a matter of broadcasting a stronger signal than the station is. The equipment can be sophisticated, but it can also be made from scrap parts of things like Ham radios. The motives vary from frustration to ‘it’s just a prank, bro’ to we don’t even know what. Head’s up; some of these audio clips are weird with a capital WTF.
The earliest signal intrusion worldwide happened all the way back in 1966 in the U.S.S.R. city of Kaluga and could quite possibly triggered a full-on nuclear war. If you know only one thing about world history in the second half of the 20th century, it would probably be the cold war, decades of itchy trigger finger tension between the US and the USSR. One night, the regular broadcast was suddenly interrupted by a seemingly official emergency warning that declared that nuclear war had just broken out with the United States. Many viewers took the message seriously, running for cover and saying their last prayers. Thankfully, as would happen with Stanislav Petrov in 1983, when he correctly guessed that the early warning system was malfunctioning when it reported US bombers incoming — you can hear all about that way back in episode 11, For Want of a Nail — government officials weren’t as quick to react. A good thing, too. At the time, the USSR have over 7,000 nuclear weapons at their disposal. They had conducted 18 nuclear weapons tests that year alone. We had nearly four times as many, but that’s neither here nor there. It would only take 50 Hiroshima-sized bombs to plunge the world into nuclear winter. The Soviets weren’t messing around. If one official had thought another department had put out a legitimate message that the US was attacking, that could have been the start of an extinction level event. Thankfully, officials didn’t panic, at least not officially. It would later be found that a teenager had hacked the station as a prank. His name was never released, possibly because of his age, possibly to save him from retaliation from his neighbors, or possibly because it was a made-up cover story — tin-foil hat.
Nuclear war became a recurring theme for signal take-overs, and it wasn’t confined to the cold war. In June of 2007, a show called Panorama was part of the regular programming in the city of Prague in what is now Czechia. The show was meant as a sort of tourist program to display calm and scenic areas around the country, like a TV travel brochure. This particular episode started as usual, with long, lingering shots of picturesque locales around Prague. Without warning, the screen was bathed in a blinding flash, then a mushroom cloud began to climb into the sky above the city. This would be disturbing enough on its own, but Panorama was usually aired *live, leaving terrified viewers at home convinced that they had just witnessed a nuclear strike on their hometown. The hijacking was seamless. There had been no static or breaks in the tv signal. It was so realistic in fact that even government officials and authorities believed the explosion was real. Luckily, it doesn’t take many phone calls, or glances out a window, to confirm that there is now a mushroom cloud rising above a blast crater in the middle of the city. Authorities soon turned their energies to finding the perpetrators. It would eventually be discovered that a guerrilla artist collective called Ztohoven, which is known for their extravagant hoaxes and pranks. Apparently, this was a piece of performance “art.” Whether or not making hundreds of people think they were about to die constitutes art is a question better left for philosophers. In a statement it said: “We are neither a terrorist organisation nor a political group. Our aim is not to intimidate society or manipulate it, which is something we witness on a daily basis both in the real world and that created by the media. On June 17 2007, [we] attacked the space of TV broadcasting, distorting it, questioning its truthfulness and its credibility.” The group added that they hoped their action would “remind the media of their duty to bring out the truth”. They must had gotten lucky with the judge presiding over their criminal trials, where the members faced three years in prison; he dismissed the case.
Back to the days of the USSR and its Communist neighbor Poland, who was referred to as a satellite state — not part of the USSR, but with a Communist government cozying up to them. In 1985, a state-run Polish television station was hijacked by a political group calling themselves Solidarity. It was a broad political party that believed in pushing for worker’s rights and social justice. At the time, the Polish government had dramatically increased the price of food, while workers’ wages remained the same. Solidarity was well-known to the government. For two years, the Polish had imposed Marshall law in order to eradicate the party, whom at the time was affiliated with by a third of working adults. Finally, in 1985 a standard news broadcast was being aired when a text appeared on screen over the broadcast. It read “enough price increases, lies and repressions. Solidarity Torun.” The logo for Solidarity also popped on the screen, finally before the broadcast cut out the screen said “it is our duty to boycott the election.” After a second transmission a few days later, four astronomy students at Poland’s University of Torun were found to be the hijackers and were jailed for four months. What they accomplished took as much skill and cunning as it did courage. They had constructed a video transmitter that could synchronise itself with the official broadcast to produce an overlay that would be visible on every set within its limited transmission radius. This was no mean feat using 1980s technology in a state in which electronic components were hard to come by. The police file on the event shows some of their equipment, including a Sinclair ZX Spectrum home computer from the West that was presumably used to generate the graphics.
Signal interruptions were by no means a phenomenon confined to the far side of the Iron Curtain. Jolly old England, where radio and TV space are tightly controlled by the BBC, which is not technically run by the government, but it could be hard to tell the difference sometimes. The actual Office of Communications, or Ofcom, had been dealing with pirate radio stations, which broadcast pop music from boats in international waters, since the 60’s. But one of the UK’s best known signal interruptions came from much farther away than twelve nautical miles off-shore. If can from outer space. At least according to the speaker of the message, en extraterrestrial named Vrillon, though his attempt to talk to the people of earth is usually referred to boringly as the Southern Television broadcast interruption. On November 26th, 1977, around 5:10 pm local time, Andrew Gardner was reading the news, when the signal was interrupted. [clip] Okay, that’s a lot harder to make out what he’s saying in an audio-only format without subtitles. The voice calls itself Vrillon, a representative of an “intergalactic association.” Here’s a portion of the transcript: This is the voice of Vrillon, a representative of the Ashtar Galactic Command, speaking to you. For many years you have seen us as lights in the skies. We speak to you now in peace and wisdom as we have done to your brothers and sisters all over this, your planet Earth. We come to warn you of the destiny of your race and your world so that you may communicate to your fellow beings the course you must take to avoid the disaster which threatens your world, and the beings on our worlds around you. This is in order that you may share in the great awakening, as the planet passes into the New Age of Aquarius. The New Age can be a time of great peace and evolution for your race, but only if your rulers are made aware of the evil forces that can overshadow their judgments. Be still now and listen, for your chance may not come again. All your weapons of evil must be removed. The time for conflict is now past and the race of which you are a part may proceed to the higher stages of its evolution if you show yourselves worthy to do this. You have but a short time to learn to live together in peace and goodwill. Small groups all over the planet are learning this, and exist to pass on the light of the dawning New Age to you all. You are free to accept or reject their teachings, but only those who learn to live in peace will pass to the higher realms of spiritual evolution. Hear now the voice of Vrillon, a representative of the Ashtar Galactic Command, speaking to you. Be aware also that there are many false prophets and guides at present operating on your world. They will suck your energy from you – the energy you call money and will put it to evil ends and give you worthless dross in return. Your inner divine self will protect you from this. You must learn to be sensitive to the voice within that can tell you what is truth, and what is confusion, chaos and untruth. Learn to listen to the voice of truth which is within you and you will lead yourselves onto the path of evolution. This is our message to our dear friends. We have watched you growing for many years as you too have watched our lights in your skies. You know now that we are here, and that there are more beings on and around your Earth than your scientists admit. We are deeply concerned about you and your path towards the light and will do all we can to help you. Have no fear, seek only to know yourselves, and live in harmony with the ways of your planet Earth. We here at the Ashtar Galactic Command thank you for your attention. We are now leaving the planes of your existence. May you be blessed by the supreme love and truth of the cosmos.” You can read the full transcript at yourbrainonfacts.com/signal and find a link to a video of the interruption in the sources list at the bottom of the page and in the show notes.
So this powerful and wise being from the depths of outer space wants to talk to everyone on earth, but only manages to take over an ITV licensee that would go belly-up four years later. And he spoke with a British accent. But he did manage to hold the signal for six minutes and that’s not nothing. Southern Television broadcast from the Hannington UHF television transmitter, which was unusual for being one of the few main transmitters which rebroadcast an off-air signal received from another transmitter, rather than being fed directly by a landline. Consequently, it was open to this kind of signal intrusion, as even a relatively low-powered transmission very close to the rebroadcast receiver could overwhelm the intended signal. Vrillon’s identity was never discovered.
There’s also a link to one of my favorite take-overs, this one in the more modern era, those halcyon days of 2013. It happened during an episode of the Steve Wilkos Show, the fan favorite security guard from Jerry Springer. Viewers of KRTV in Great Falls, Montana were robbed of what I’m sure was a thoughtful discourse on teenage infidelity and a polygraph machine by the familiar klaxon of the emergency alert system. A blue bar with a white text crawl appeared on the screen. The text read that the affected counties were being given an official emergency notice. This is what viewers heard: [clip]
The message went out again that evening during The Bachelor. I’m sure viewers of both shows were heart-broken to have missed critical plot points and character development. The emergency alert reached such a wide audience, an official statement had to be given that the alert was false. Some people did call 911 about it, but there were no reports of real panic. “We didn’t get any serious calls on it,” Great Falls Police Department spokesman Bill Hunter said. “It’s been a real chuckle,” he said.
The signal highjackers didn’t start with KRTV. They had also sent their fake warning out on a PBS affiliate in Marquette, MI (during Barney and Friends, no less!) and another in Portalis, NM, though no recordings seems to exist of those. So how did they do it? How did they hack the emergency alert system, a system you really don’t want people messing with. It was easy, embarrassingly so. All of that stations involved had left their EAS encoder-decorders on the factory presets. Basically, the password was password. The following day, the manufacturer, Monroe Electronics, sent out a statement reminding broadcasters to change the presets like it says in the instruction manual. That warning message may sound familiar to some listeners, specifically metal heads. Half of that message is used as the opening of the Anthrax song Fight ‘Em Till You Can’t, though it seems to have been recorded by HauntedHotSauce.com as something to play in a loop for atmosphere on Halloween.
Naughty fun seems to be the name of the game for signal-jacking in the US and you don’t just much naughtier than porn. Remember when .8 seconds of Janet Jackson’s nipple during Super Bowl 38 rocked or society to its core? And boy how I wish I was exaggerating that more. Well, Super Bowl 43 was an order of magnitude more scandalous, at least if you were watching on Comcast in certain parts of Arizona, where an x-rated movie interrupted the game for nearly 37 seconds. Only those watching the standard-definition feed, not HD, got the surprise addition of “Wild Cherries 5,” but it was an event that understandably made a lot of people upset. The culprit was a 39 year old employee of competing Cox Communications who worked as a liaison with Comcast. The game was shown locally on KVOA. The station sent its signals — both standard definition and high definition — to Cox Communications, which then sent them to Comcast. Frank Gonzalez pled guilty to two counts of computer tampering and received three years probation and a $1,000 fine, payable to the Arizona Attorney General’s anti-racketeering fund. Comcast ended up offering a $10 credit to all of its 80,000 subscribers, whether they witnessed the scene or not. It wasn’t immediately known how many subscribers took Comcast up on its offer, but Assistant Arizona Attorney General Michael Jette told the judge Comcast is not seeking restitution. Officials with Comcast have said they had strengthened their security system.
Many if not most of the people watching the Super Bowl are grown-ups, not so much with the Disney channel Bob the Builder rip-off Handy Manny. In 2007, at around 9:30 PM in Lincroft, New Jersey, the animate show of a handyman and his talking tools (hehe, tools) was interrupted by a clip from a hardcore porno for what must have felt like an eternity to parents scrambling to find the remote. We can only assume a lot of families had to have “the talk” that night. Comcast claimed to have no idea how it happened. “Our initial investigation suggests this was an isolated malicious act. We are conducting a thorough investigation to determine who was behind this.” This digital Tyler Durden was never identified.
One signal-jacker whose identity we do know flipped the script on the porn pranks by hacking the Playboy channel. On a Sunday night in 1987 Playboy’s broadcast was sabotaged with a thoroughly off-brand text message. During Playboy’s broadcast of the movie Three Daughters, the screen went black. Then white text appeared: “Thus sayeth the Lord thy God. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.” and “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” These come from the Bible books of Exodus and Matthew respectively. Playboy wasn’t alone. The porno prostilizter also hit the channel American Exxxtasy. He struck three times in all, twice on American Exxxtasy and once on Playboy. Three years later, the hacker was revealed to be one Thomas M. Haynie, a signal uplink engineer for the Christian Broadcast Network, a cable channel that only produced Christian programs. Investigators claimed Haynie used CBN’s equipment for the hacks, but CBN directors claimed that was impossible because their equipment was incompatible with Playboy’s and American Exxxtasy’s. Investigators insisted that, yeah, the equipment was compatible and even provided evidence to prove that Playboy was hacked using CBN’s equipment. Haynie was given one felony and one misdemeanor charge for the Playboy hack, though the two charges for the American Exxxtasy hacks were dropped because of a lack of evidence.
Eric, Shawn, Paul, Richard, Bunny Trails, Varmints, Odd Dad Out
And now for the most prized jewel in the signal intrusion crown — the Max Headroom incident. For the benefit of several listeners, Max Headroom was a character created to into music videos, before becoming a pop culture icon with a TV show and commercial deals, the biggest being for New Coke. You can google New Coke on your own, otherwise I’ll go on an hour-long tangent. Max was billed as the first full CGI TV host, which would not have been practical, affordable, or arguably possible when he debuted in 1987. Instead, he was character actor Matt Frewer in plastic-y makeup, lit with a single, high-contrast light, chromakeyed onto a background of spinning neon stripes. Glitches and ticks were added in post. … It’s one of those things that sounds lame when you say it out loud, but was incredibly cool at the time. Anywhoski, you need that bit of backstory because the most well-known signal-jacking is probably The Max Headroom incident.
On Nov. 22, 1987, WGN Chicago channel 9 sportscaster Dan Roan was covering the highlights of the Bears’ recent victory over the Detroit Lions. At 9:14, Roan disappeared from the screen as the image went black for 15 seconds. Then a figure appeared, wearing a full-head Max Headroom rubber Halloween mask with sunglasses. IT’s over-sized for his body, making the whole situation that much creepier. A stripey silver background, a piece of corrugated aluminum, turns back and forth behind him. There was no audio except a loud buzzing as the figure in the mask bobbed around. After 30 seconds of startling strangeness, signal engineers, switched the frequency of the studio link to another transmitter. Dan Roan reappeared, “Well, if you’re wondering what’s happened,” he said, clearly as confused as the viewers, “…ha-ha…so am I.” The news finished without further incident. Studio engineers assumed that the hijack was an inside job and immediately began searching the building for the masked intruder, but no one was in the building who wasn’t supposed to be there.
Two hours later, Discount Max Headroom was back, this time on WTTV channel 11, during the Doctor Who episode titled “The Horror of Fang Rock.” The video cut out, replaced with scan lines like you used to see at the beginning of a VHS tape, then Max reappeared. The twisting background and bobbing movements were the same, but this time, there was audio, though it does seem to drop into the middle of what Max is saying. “That does it,” the figure said in a digitally distorted voice. “He’s a fricken nerd” and he laughs. The creeps just keep on coming. Max seems to have a vendetta against WGN in general — he claims he “made a giant masterpiece for all the greatest world newspaper nerds,” referencing WGN’s acronym — and sports anchor Chuck Swirsky in particular, mentioning Swirsky by name repeatedly. Did he have a professional grudge? Was he about to deliver a manifesto of some kind (and why do we never hear manifesto refer to anything positive)? Why did this man and at least two accomplices go to all this trouble?
Your guess is as good as mine. If there was symbolism to what Max said and did, he’s the only one who got it. He held up a can of Pepsi, dropped the Coca-Cola slogan “catch the wave,” then dropped the can like a battle rapper drops the mic. Max moved off screen and came back with something on his middle finger, a “marital aid,” as the news would refer to it later, for adding length to one’s member. Max flips off the camera while singing lyrics to (I Know) I’m Losing You by the Temptations. He also sang the theme song to Clutch Cargo, a 60’s cartoon show that super-imposed the voice actors mouths on the cartoon faces presumably to save on animate. Max quotes phrases from television shows, screamed nonsense, and then he began to moan.
The camera cut and now the mask is being held right in front of it with the marital aid being stuck through the mouth slit. Max then stuck his naked butt into frame and woman dressed in some kind of costume — some people think it looks like Annie Oakley, others think it’s a french maid — appeared and spanked him rather dispassionately with a fly swatter.
This utter madness went on for 82 bizarre seconds before engineers were able to take it down. What took so long; were the hackers that technically savvy? No, there was no one on duty at the transmitter tower. Reactions from Chicagoans ranged from amusement to confusion to one man who wanted to punch out his TV. Many people who were taping Dr. Who ended up preserving the Maz Headroom Incident for posterity. Hold up, you day, if there were recordings, why didn’t Moxie play a clip? Because it sounded like this. [clip] See, better left out. The government was not pleased. The FCC, the agency that regulates the airwaves, dedicated all of their efforts to finding the mysterious masked figure, even offering a reward to anyone with information. “I would like to inform anybody involved in this kinda thing, that there’s a maximum penalty of $100,000, one year in jail, or both,” Phil Bradford, an FCC spokesman, told a reporter. WTTW spokesman Anders Yocom warned, “Iit is a very serious matter because illegal interference of a broadcast signal is a violation of federal law. ”
Eventually, the FCC worked out how the hacker had done it. With parts as underwhelming as scavenged electronics, a van, and a DirectTV sized dish, all he/she/they had to do was get between the studio, say on a rooftop parking deck, and the transmitter tower and beam away. Leads were thin on the ground, though rumor flew then and for years to come. Even though the statute of limitations has been up for decades, no one has stepped forward to take credit for the most bizarre 2 minutes of tv ever aired. And I’m saying that as someone who used to watch Liquid Television religiously.
You might be thinking, “these signal interruptions were all on old-school analog equipment. The average shmo couldn’t do that these days.” Au contraire. In the age of digital transmissions and encryption, signal intrusions have become harder to perpetrate, but they still happen. In September of 1998, people watching Everybody Loves Raymond were suddenly treated to a handsome man in his 30s with a profound obsession for Listerine mouthwash. He lovingly cradles a bottle of the stuff in his hand and proceeds to relentlessly expound on the virtues of this product, as if the whole thing is a mouthwash infomercial. This extremely odd video went out to millions of puzzled viewers. It wasn’t a commercial. In fact, Listerine insisted that they had had nothing to do with it. The source of the signal could not be located and the oral hygiene officianado joined the ranks of mysterious signal-jackers. FCC spokesperson Grant Yarborough would say of the whole head-scratching matter: “Why this individual should be so obsessed with oral hygiene as to demand that several million bottles of Listerine be simultaneously purchased is baffling, to say the least. This gentleman seemed single-mindedly, almost obsessively determined to convince as many people as possible that using Listerine is somehow absolutely essential.”
There was a signal jacking as recently as last year, when, from 6AM to 7:39AM one Thursday morning, viewers weren’t able to learn any useful weather information from The Weather Channel. Whatever was supposed to be broadcast by whomever interrupted the signal wasn’t. The channel was just out of commission. The TV network had to show a taped program instead of airing its morning show AMHQ. In a Twitter post, the company explained that it experienced issues due to a “malicious software attack” and that it was only able to restore live broadcast through backup mechanisms. While the network didn’t elaborate on the breach, feds told The Wall Street Journal that it was a ransomware attack, meaning someone tried to extort money from the company by holding its system hostage. Ransomware attacks have become increasingly common, with hackers attacking and extorting even huge corporations like FedEx and government offices like Atlanta’s. Investigators later found that the ransomware used to attack the Georgia capital was also used to extort hospitals, health care companies and state agencies. The weather channel ransomers were, like so many others on our list, never caught.
And that’s… But back to Capt. Midnight. Back in the early-80s, satellite dish owners were responsible for owning and servicing their own equipment but had access to any satellite broadcast programming including that of cable providers. When HBO scrambled its signal, it offered subscriptions to home dish owners for $12.95 per month, which was either equal to or slightly higher than what cable subscribers paid. As other channels scrambled their feeds, satellite dish sales and service companies, like the one owned by one John MacDougall took a hit as people left satellite for cable. He’d had to take a second job as control master of a sattelite signal hub, which gave him the means to point a dish at the HBO satelite and overwhelm their signal. Then, he began discussing the event with anyone who would listen. He was charged with transmitting without a radio license, pled guilty and was fined $5,000 and served a year probation. Remember… Thanks…