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The Curious Case Of The Max Headroom Broadcast, The Biggest TV Hack In History

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On November 22nd, 1987, at 9:16PM, the technicians and newsroom staff of Chicago's WGN news station were frantic. During sportscaster Dan Roan's segment on the channel's flagship primetime show, The Nine O'Clock News, the broadcast was somehow plunged into a 15-second stretch of darkness.

When it re-emerged, the face that filled their portent-heavy screens wasn't that of a handsome, long-faced Roan, but of an unidentified male sporting a rubber mask fashioned after the popular character-cum-veejay Max Headroom. What ensued was a minutes-long video of the hacker jumping and dancing in front of whatever camera that was (or had been) taping him; the masked digital intruder was interrupted when some station hands were finally able to switch the transmission frequency back to the John Hancock transmitter, once again gaining control of their broadcast.

After the first station hack concluded, the newsroom was as baffled as any viewer at home.

"Well, if you're wondering what's happened," said Roan, "so am I."

The most baffling detail of all? When the TV room technicians had tried to pinpoint the new origin of the commandeered signal, it seemed to be coming from inside the station itself.

"By the time our people began looking into what was going on, it was over," station spokesperson Anders Yocom told the Chicago Tribune after the incident had already received mainstream, national attention, slotting the event into a place of pop culture reverence.

And even though the hack was the launchpoint of what would later be considered one of the biggest -- if not the biggest -- television signal disruption in history, it would not be the last.

The facts are these: the initial WGN hack had been caused by an interruption from WGN's microwave transmission, which was normally televised to a antennae located on top of the 1,127-foot John Hancock building, then the third-tallest building in Chicago; around 11:15PM, the exact same disruption would again occur, this time rifting a transmission from another station, PBS-affilliate WTW, meant for the Sears Tower skyscraper.

If possible, this second hack took on a more sinister tone. Unlike the first recording played after WGN's signal was pirated, the second featured a talking Max (daresay, even a Mad Max) throwing an apparent phallus to the floor, yowling "catch the wave!" (the tagline for the New Coke marketing campaign, which touted the actual Max Headroom as its spokesman) quickly followed by abstract, bitter nonsequitirs.

"Your love is fading!" says Max, half-taunting, half-crying.

The persona of Max Headroom was fitting for such a hack: a character posited in a dystopian future who acted as a cynical, almost puckish, tongue-in-cheek harbinger for things to come. The character, portrayed by Canadian actor Max Frewer, was a zeitgeist of the late 80's; first featured in the 1985 made-for-television movie Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into The Future, followed by a stint as a veejay on his own Channel 4 series The Max Headroom Show, capped off by an American-produced dramatic television show Max Headroom, which lasted for barely more than a season between 1987 and 1988.

What makes the character so unsettling for modern audiences is his then-original signifier: Max Headroom was depicted as a humanoid, computer-generated animation, made up entirely of artificial intelligence and electronic voice sampling. For each episode or appearance that Fewer put in, he would be subected to a four-and-a-half hour session in which foam and latex prostheses were applied to the actor's jawline, cheeks, forehead, and face -- all of which resulted in the eerie, plasticine look of a young James Spader look alike. (Sadly enough, the last appearance Max Headroom has made was in the Adam Sandler flop Pixels.)

Max Headroom, then, was the perfect guise for a would-be TV hacker to don for a signal disruption: a man without a face with a synchronized voice was all at once an imaginary man and an everyman, with a persona that outshone an actual soul.

It's a joke -- or a message -- only an immediate, post-1984 world disappointed with its less-than-disconsolate outcome could have concocted.

The motive of the broadcast hack is a bifurcated affair. It could have been a whimsical prank orchestrated by a waggish jokester full of puffing bravado, yet his apparent hesitations give way to maladroit -- and if you squint, even transgressively shy -- tendencies. Whatever message the masked-man gives is obfuscated by the static and a screen that tilts with the leering quality of a fun house room, all thanks to a revolving sheet of corrugated metal to pull off the overall effect.

Then again, the grand finale of the pre-recorded hack is the masked Max Headroom mooning the audience, accompanied by an unidentified female accomplished, dressed in a French maid outfit. She flagellates his ass with a flyswatter as he screams into the background, "They're coming to get me!"

While the act itself is now widely known, the impetus for the hack itself is only really understood the perpetrators, and what sensationalized the event in the first place can only really be unpacked by how harrowing of a metaphoric prediction it is 28 years later, in an era where hacks from collectives like Anonymous are almost commonplace in the news cycle. In the age of the Internet, the night that Max Headroom disrupted the usual routine, transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary, liminalized the real and the unreal, creating a space that we are still trying our hardest and best to define to this day.

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