On the evening of Sunday, Nov. 22, 1987, was almost a festive evening for fans of Doctor Who. The following day it was 24 years since the British sci-fi classic was first broadcast. While the Seventh Doctor, Sylvester McCoy, was the latest incumbent, Chicago PBS station WTTW reruns the first episode of the Fourth Doctor adventure. “The Horror of Fang Rock.”
Those who had tuned into the 10-year-old adventure were probably familiar with the concept that anything could happen in a Time Lord’s life, but they didn’t expect what they saw. A few minutes into the broadcast, the scene with an early 20th century lighthouse faded away and the face of fictional AI character Max Headroom appeared.
But it wasn’t really Headroom, played by Matt Frewer, who recently found fame with the character that hosted “20 Minutes into the Future.” It was a person wearing a headspace mask who proceeded to clown around on the hacked airwaves for about 90 seconds. In those seconds, the masked man apparently spoke gibberish, beginning with, “It does. He’s a fucking nerd!” followed by references to local sports commentator Chuck Swirsky, Headroom’s latest commercial for Coca-Cola and words that were hard to follow. He put on a glove and said his brother had the other, made a comment about “world newspaper nerds” and then said, “Whoa! They’re coming for me!” as he disappeared from the screen and was replaced by a man bending over, revealing his bare ass, who was then slapped by a woman. “Oh, do it!” were the last words, was heard as the hack ended and replaced by Fourth Doctor Tom Baker back in the lighthouse, who announced: “As far as I can tell, a massive electric shock – he died instantly.”
It was the second intervention of the evening. A little earlier, local news station WGN-TV experienced a 30-second blackout when the same figure appeared, although no audio was broadcast at the time. Together, the event made headlines around the world and became known as the Max Headroom signal hijacking – even though the Headroom element was nothing more than a mask.
See Max Headroom Hack
WTTW Broadcast Director Paul Rizzo later recalled his horror as the moment unfolded. “Suddenly we don’t have that Doctor Who in the air—we have this Max Headroom mask,” he said. “And as the content got weirder, we got more and more stressed about our inability to do anything about it.” Colleague Al Skierkiewicz added that “it would have to be a broadcast engineer, a satellite engineer or a ham radio operator. And probably a combination of at least two of those to pull this off.”
In 2019, Swirsky told Infinite thread podcast that he was flooded with calls after the outage that he didn’t see. “‘Hey, did you just hear…’ or ‘Did you see that?'” he was asked. “‘What are you talking about?’ ‘Max clearance!’ “Yeah, what about Max Headroom?” “Well, I mean he mentioned you!” I said, ‘What did he say?’ “He said you were a bloody liberal.” … I thought it was a practical joke! … I really didn’t understand this whole Max Headroom phenomenon. I mean, I really couldn’t relate to him. I had no connection.”
Swirsky found himself at the center of media attention for all the wrong reasons. “I had a couple of friends tell me…’You better seek protection.’Whoever did this had to be pretty smart and sharp to do what he did,” he recalled. “People started asking me, ‘Well, so in the upcoming election, who are you that you’re taking in 1988?’ You know, ‘What are your views on this, this and this?’ You know, I just want to be a guy, just a guy on the street.” The Federal Communications Commission launched a criminal investigation, but the perpetrators were never identified. The organisation’s Phil Bradford told the media: “This is very serious and we want to inform anyone who is involved in this type of thing that it is serious and we will do everything we can to find out , who is doing it. . . And once we have determined that, we will make sure that the full extent of the law is implemented.”
See the ‘real’ Max Headroom in action
Although the offense carried a maximum fine of $100,000 and imprisonment – the law had since changed Captain Midnight jamming by HBO the previous year – several people over the years have claimed the stunt. In 2010 a Redditor said he knew who did it and provided what he hoped would be enough details to be believed, though he refused to name anyone involved, just in case it brought them to court. He said he was in the company of brothers “J” and “K” that evening and they suggested he tune in to WTTW later. What he saw convinced him that “this is the kind of humor that J loved,” the Redditor wrote. “All of his jokes constantly involved something childish and/or sexually deviant. The video is, for all intents and purposes, a perfect reflection of J’s sense of humor. Scattered, edgy and comically sexually deviant.”
A few years later he noted that both J and K were disqualified from breaking the law. At the time, documentarian Chris Knittel had conducted an investigation and claimed that someone at FCC headquarters had more information than his boss would allow released. “According to him, his hands were tied behind his back,” Knittel said. “He had what he thought was a credible idea of where they were putting out their transmission, where they were sending out their signal. But someone who he wouldn’t name, specifically who he was working with … didn’t want him to go and pursue it, would not have him knocking on doors.” Asked why that was, he replied: “I don’t know.”
He added that “one area I didn’t fully explore was that there were a lot of layoffs in the months leading up to the incident. To me, I feel like it’s most likely someone who’s ex-broadcast, regardless what a trait. But there’s no hard evidence out there.”
Like the best conspiracy theories – and maybe like one Doctor Who story where the unwitting world will never know it has been saved from destruction by an alien threat – the Max Headroom incident remains unresolved.
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