Proto-Troll: “The Max Headroom Incident”

“I made a giant masterpiece for all the greatest world newspaper nerds.”
—Unknown broadcast hijacker

Picture it: You’re watching Doctor Who on the TV set (just minding your own business). Suddenly, static crackles across your screen. Then your television program is replaced with a weird figure in a mask who speaks in an eerie, tinny voice. It’s…Max Headroom?!

This actually happened on the evening of November 22, 1987. A broadcast of Doctor Who on Chicago PBS station WTTW was interrupted at around 11:15 PM with what’s known as a “broadcast signal intrusion.” Basically: somebody hijacked the television signal and replaced it with their own programming.

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What followed was a rough mock-up of the popular Max Headroom show, complete with a sheet of moving corrugated metal in the background and of course a suited man in a Headroom mask. Instead of Matt Frewer’s dulcet-yet-stuttery tones, however, there is the gleeful screech of an electronic falsetto.

The faux Headroom goes on to do the following, among other things:

  • Laugh maniacally
  • Hold up a Pepsi can and say “Catch the Wave” (Max Headroom was promoting Coca-Cola at the time)
  • Humming the theme to the 1950s children’s program Clutch Cargo
  • Bend over and have his naked buttocks spanked by a woman in a French Maid outfit holding a flyswatter

The whole segment clocks in at around a minute-and-a-half. Then, back to your regularly-scheduled broadcast of Doctor Who:

The broadcast hijackers were never found or identified, though apparently they had managed to briefly break through the signal earlier that evening during sports coverage at a different Chicago station.

The “Max Headroom Incident” (as it’s now come to be known) is part of an unrelated trifecta of legendary signal interruptions; the others were the 1977 Southern Television broadcast interruption, in which “aliens” claimed to take over the signal, and the 1986 “Captain Midnight” case, involving a message protesting HBO’s recent fee hikes.

But it is definitely the Headroom broadcast that has captured the imagination of the public all the way to the present day. Indeed, not only does it seem to be visually referenced by the “fsociety” broadcasts in the TV series Mr. Robot, but when you think about it, they look a lot like “Anonymous” videos.

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Indeed, the spirit of the Headroom signal intrusion—though admittedly silly on the surface—is very much anarchistic. It says: “we’ve stolen your broadcast. We could do this at any time, were we not busy watching pirated copies of the old Clutch Cargo cartoon and getting spanked by fly-swatters.”

In 2011, a Reddit user named Bowie J. Poag claimed to have known the people who carried out the signal intrusion—they were allegedly part of a bunch of hackers in suburban Chicago:

People who were into the hacking scene back then were basically the same type of people who are into the hacking scene now…Guys who live in their parent’s basements, charming/brilliant guys who don’t think to bathe often, and often lacking in social skills pretty much across the board. They hang out at Denny’s until they’re asked to leave, they can quote Monty Python sketches from memory, and sleep with JRR Tolkien books under their beds where other guys stash porn.

A subsequent investigation by Motherboard into the Headroom Incident includes an interview with Poag, delving deeper into the then-nascent “Internet” subculture of dial-up and BBS chat. While Motherboard was not 100% convinced of Poag’s story, it did tie the hacker subculture of the era in with the famous signal intrusion:

It’s ripe for media studies too, perhaps—a cyberpunk culture jam, an anarchic protest decades before Anonymous and hacktivism became household terms, reminding unsuspecting audiences how unsuspecting they really were. But the incident’s impact lies in its murk. I wonder if the hackers could have suspected that their momentary coup on the broadcast spectrum would find a new life on the Internet, where it still plays forever on repeat, forever subject to analysis and befuddlement. It lives in that ambiguous space between uncanny and scary, that place where “the hacker” continues to live.

Could something like the Max Headroom incident happen today? I think society is a good bit beyond such relatively innocent pranks, don’t you?

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