Friday night on NBC: Dateline at eight, Grimm at nine, Hannibal at ten. For avid television watchers, life can be broken up into half-hour or hour-long blocks. A regimented schedule, daily programming is a way to structure our free time. We come to depend on its regularity and we take great comfort in its dependability.
The very structure of television lends its messages authenticity. When our favorite show is interrupted, we assume that some drastic event has occurred that requires immediate attention. The assassination of John F. Kennedy, the Sago Mine disaster, the September 11 attacks… all these events disrupted normal programming. Often dubbed “breaking news,” the term itself describes the mechanism by which it works: by breaking us out of our routine. The act of interrupting, in part, lends gravity to the news itself. Like a telephone call in the middle of the night, we know that nobody would disturb us at this time without a good reason.
But, to paraphrase Robert Burns, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.
Since schedules are tightly controlled and rarely disturbed, any variation or alteration becomes jarring. Historically, pranksters and hoaxers have taken advantage of this fact to garner viewers’ trust and dupe their audience into believing the absurd. Look no further than Orson Welles’ 1938 radio drama The War of the Worlds for an example of how a clever trickster can pull the wool over the eyes of a gullible public.
In this list, we examine five situations where such swindles occurred. We look at those times where tech-savvy con men used the authority of television to mislead a trusting audience. From the lowbrow humor of a higher intelligence to the end of the world as seen by a rebellious artists collective, we train our eyes on five mystifying instances of signal hijacking.
The Max Headroom Incident
The granddaddy of all broadcast intrusions, dubbed “The Max Headroom Incident,” occurred on November 22, 1987. At 11:15 p.m., an episode of Doctor Who cut out. The screen rolled. From within the staticky remnants emerged a mechanical buzzing. What followed was 90 of the strangest seconds to ever appear on television.
A man, wearing a latex Max Headroom mask, bragged, “I’m better than Chuck Swirsky.” The mysterious stranger went on to shill New Coke while wielding a can of Pepsi. He channeled his inner Temptation as he lamented “Your love is fading.” He complained about his “piles.” Finally, the scene cut to the masked man, now bent over with his pants lowered, as an accomplice spanked him with a plastic flyswatter.
To this day, the perpetrators of the Max Headroom incident have not been identified. A number of theories have emerged, including — most recently — one that gained traction on news aggregation website Reddit that posited that two maladjusted brothers were responsible for the event.
Vrillon’s Cosmological Warning
On November 26, 1977 the Martians came to the United Kingdom.
At 5 o’clock in the evening, a voice — deep and echoing — broke across the evening news. Interrupting local newscaster Andrew Gardner, the voice warned its human audience that they “must live in peace… or leave the galaxy.” Claiming the be a representative of the Intergalactic Mission, the intruder — who called himself “Asteron” — projected his words above the whirring of static and invited listeners to participate meaningfully in the “New Age of Aquarius.”
For six minutes, Asteron overrode the local news with his intergalactic message. His words reverberating, he proselytized for peace — both internal an external — and urged the denizens of Earth to pursue enlightenment. His final words garbled to incoherence by audio distortion, the altruistic spaceman bid his audience farewell as the theme song to Looney Tunes dissolved into an auditory nightmare.
Locals, obviously, flipped their lids. News agencies had a field day. Rebroadcasting Asteron’s message across the globe, television stations worldwide became willing parties to the Intergalactic Mission’s message. With the perpetrator of the intrusion still unknown, broadcast experts’ only lead is that execution of such a hoax would require “a considerable amount of technical know-how.”
Captain Midnight Strikes Back!
It was 1986 and John R. MacDougall was angry. The owner of a satellite dish dealership in Ocala, Florida, MacDougall was a bit nonplussed when he learned that pay channels — like Showtime and HBO — would begin charging fees to satellite dish owners that wanted access to their channels. To MacDougall, $12.95 a month was an insult and an affront to autonomous dish owners everywhere. By all accounts, he was a hardworking small businessman making an honest living in a tough economy when those pernicious cable tycoons started ferreting through his pockets.
Being a man of action, MacDougall did what any of us would do: He became a superhero.
Assuming the nom de plume “Captain Midnight,” MacDougall pointed one of his dishes at Galaxy 1 — the satellite that carried HBO — and jammed the signal, replacing it with a message of his own. Like Zorro leaving his trademark “Z,” MacDougall played the role of the gentlemanly rebel by gleefully announcing, “GOOD EVENING HBO, FROM CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT, $12.95/MONTH ?, NO WAY !”
Broadcast Of The Living Dead
“We can report in the city, there have been no sightings of dead bodies rising from the ground.”
That was the response from Lt. Shane Sorenson of the Great Falls Police Department after hackers infiltrated the Emergency Alert System (EAS) to announce that the zombie apocalypse had arrived and that the dead were “attacking the living.”
The incident occurred in February of 2013 and affected a number of stations near Marquette, Michigan. Citizens, no doubt, barricaded their homes and armed themselves with improvised truncheons, bibles, and chest-mounted lawnmowers in preparation for the apocalypse. Shortly after the hijacking, though, the station issued an apology, stating that the, “message did not originate from KRTV, and there is no emergency.”
While the broadcasts were confined to a specific geographic area, authorities remain uncertain of the hacker’s location. After the incident, the FCC expressed concern over the way that the EAS is designed, with “no authentication, […] no encryption, […] no passwords, [and] nothing that is required to send what would appear to be a valid message” and many security experts fear that similar intrusions are inevitable.
The Media Reality
Executed by Czech guerrilla artist collective Ztohoven, The Media Reality was realized by climbing the transmitter of the Czech Radio-Telecommunications company. Once atop the tower, the group hacked into a webcam used during broadcast to show weather conditions at the Krkonose mountains. With their gear in place, Ztohoven waited patiently.
On June 17, 2007 during a live broadcast, the camera was activated. Intended to provide viewers with a forecast for the Krkonose area, it instead panned across the landscape to show the area dwarfed beneath the massive plume of a mushroom cloud. With an untold number of viewers panicked by the grisly image, the group was accused of scaremongering and spreading false information. Ultimately, the charges were dropped when a judge ruled the collective’s actions were not malicious in nature.
Regardless, the actions of Ztohoven serve to illustrate the public’s reliance upon — and inherent trust of — the integrity of television broadcasts. The group, though they took advantage of this trust, continues to garner critical acclaim for their reality-bending pranks.