I meant to post this so it it would appear on November 22nd, but forgot about it in all the holiday hoopla. Forgiveness, please!
November 22nd is my Dad’s birthday. Every few years, it’s also the date Thanksgiving falls on. But lots of people in the Chicago area might remember November 22nd, 1987 for something else entirely. For it was on that date that persons unknown hijacked the broadcast signal of both WGN-TV and WTTW.
In WGN’s case, it happened during the football highlights on the local news. Sports anchor Dan Roan was breaking down that day’s Chicago Bears game when suddenly the monitors in the studio began to flicker. The screen switched to someone dressed up as 80s television “personality” Max Headroom. In an homage to the computer-generated backgrounds used in the real Max Headroom shows, the person stood in front of a rotating piece of corrugated aluminum and just grinned. Horrified WGN engineers quickly switched to another transmitter, and viewers were treated to a priceless expression on Roan’s face. Said the sportscaster: “Well, if you’re wondering what happened, so am I.”
Things were even worse for WTTV. The PBS station didn’t have an engineer on duty that night, so the station’s programmers were helpless when “Max” broke in to their signal around 3 hours after the incident at WGN. This time “Max” had plenty of time to utter a bunch of nonsensical phrases, like “I stole CBS” and “My brother is wearing the other one”. “Max” then dropped his pants and was repeatedly slapped on the behind by a woman using a flyswatter. After a few seconds of this, the screen went dark and the broadcast returned to the Doctor Who episode that had been running when the “signal intrusion” first took place.
Interestingly, no one was ever caught – or even suspected or questioned – over the event, and the case remains open to this day. The amount of money and the skill set needed to pull off a stunt like this was not lost on FBI and FCC investigators. But “Max’s” rants didn’t have a political or economic slant to them – unlike “Captain Midnight“, a satellite dealer that hijacked HBO’s signal with a rant about how expensive the service was for satellite customers – so the FBI never really even knew where to start with the case.