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Captain Midnight & Max Headroom TV Broadcast Intrusions

It surprisingly doesn’t happen more often, but back in the 80s there were a couple notable occasions when TV broadcast intrusions were accomplished.

Back in the early-80s, satellite dish owners were responsible for owning and servicing their own equipment but had access to any satellite-broadcasted programming including that of cable providers. In the mid-80s, cable channels began scrambling their programming and charging fees to home satellite dish owners who accessed the signals requiring many satellite dish owners were forced to purchase expensive descrambling equipment in addition to paying monthly or annual subscription fees to cable programming providers. SatelliteWhen 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. Dish owners were not happy and it triggered a national movement among dish owners to more strongly regulate the cable industry and force them to stop anti-competitive pricing. One individual decided to send his own message directly to HBO letting them know his feelings.

Just after midnight on the morning of April 27, 1986, “Captain Midnight” jammed the HBO signal and broadcasted his own protest message to the channel. John R. MacDougall, a satellite TV dealer in Ocala, Florida, was working at Central Florida Teleport, a company that uplinks services to satellites. He was overseeing the uplink of the movie Pee-wee’s Big Adventure as part of the evening’s programming for the now-defunct pay-per-view network People’s Choice. At the end of his shift, he swung the dish back into its storage position, which aimed it at the location of the satellite that carried HBO. As a protest against the introduction of those high fees and scrambling equipment, he transmitted a signal onto the satellite which overrode HBO’s airing of The Falcon and the Snowman. The simple message which appeared on the sets of HBO subscribers for about 4 and a half minutes across the eastern half of the country read:
GOODEVENING HBO
FROM CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT
$12.95/MONTH ?
NO WAY !
[SHOWTIME/MOVIE CHANNEL BEWARE!]

Captain Midnight 

Not sure how many of those subscribers were tuned in at that hour, but I am sure they were a little pissed off that their movie was interrupted in such a fashion. Other than that, MacDougall’s message was fairly innocent and did not do any harm. He chose the name “Captain Midnight” from a movie he had recently seen, On the Air Live with Captain Midnight (not the 40s radio show). After media pressure forced the FCC to take some action, MacDougall was charged and plea bargained a $5,000 fine and was placed on just one year’s probation. To this day, MacDougall still owns and operates MacDougall Electronics, a satellite dish dealership, in Ocala, Florida.

The following year, another TV broadcast intrusion occurred on an even-bigger scale. The intruder, wearing a Max Headroom mask, was able to interrupt two television stations in Chicago, Illinois within three hours on the evening of November 22, 1987. These acts were more disturbing and seemed to lack any specific purpose or message. The first incident took place on WGN during its primetime 9pm newscast when a person wearing a Max Headroom mask appeared. There was no audio, only a buzzing noise, and it was stopped after only about 30 seconds when engineers switched over to an alternate transmitter once they figured out what was going on. When sportscaster Dan Roan returned to air after the incident, he said “Well, if you’re wondering what happened, so am I.” I am sure anybody tuned in to that broadcast was momentarily confused, but not as much as those watching another channel later that same night.

Later that night, around 11:15 p.m., during a broadcast of the Doctor Who serial Horror of Fang Rock, PBS station WTTW’s signal was hijacked using the same video that was broadcast during the WGN incident, but this time with distorted audio and running its full duration of about 90 seconds. I would describe this video as a little disturbing and it still really creeps me out a bit watching it now. He says a lot of random things and it ends with his bare bottom being spanked by a flyswatter. The audio was difficult to make out, but the following video allows you to see the entire incident while including helpful subtitles…

Creepy! It is so manic and disjointed, yet these guys must have been pretty smart in order to hijack the signal. Unlike the “Captain Midnight” occurrence, WTTW was not able to stop the intrusion and neither the hijacker nor the accomplices have ever been found or identified. That’s a long time to keep a secret! I am surprised they never tried it again, but I guess they were smart enough not to press their luck. The Max Headroom incident made national headlines and to me, is a truly fascinating moment in 80s pop culture history.

Thanks, as always, for reading! My regular blog site for Kickin’ it Old School has been down for a while now. But you can still please like/follow us on our Facebook page (http://www.Facebook.com/KickinItOldSchool80s/) and on Twitter @OldSchool80s (http://www.Twitter.com/OldSchool80s/). We also have begun re-publishing our awesome interviews over at Rediscover the 80s and you can read them here(http://www.rediscoverthe80s.com/search/label/interview/)


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OldSchool80s Posted on May 09, 2018 at 08:08 PM

@pikachulover Sounds like that could be an interesting angle for a story.

pikachulover Posted on May 09, 2018 at 06:51 AM

I was using broadcast intrusions as the inspiration of a story I'm writing.

Vaporman87 Posted on May 07, 2018 at 10:49 PM

We've discussed the Max Headroom intrusion in the past, but I don't recall the Captain Midnight one.

Too bad this type of mischief isn't a thing anymore. Now the only video oddities are peculiar YouTube uploads.

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