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WTTW Channel 11 - Doctor Who - "The Max Headroom Pirating Incident" (1987)

During a broadcast of the Dr. Who episode "Horror of Fang Rock" on WTTW Chicago Channel 11, on Sunday November 22nd, 1987, at around 11:15pm, a Video "Pirate" wearing a Max Headroom mask broke into the signal and transmitted one of the weirdest, unauthorized things ever to hit the Chicago airwaves.

Earlier in the evening on the same day, during the Nine O'Clock News on Channel 9 (Yes, a completely different channel) the Max Headroom Pirate also broke in - although it was for a much shorter time and there was no audio.

Needless to say, Dan Roan (the sports reporter) was a bit flustered.

And no, he was never caught.

My Take: The guy was probably high and/or drunk. Even with the audio distortion, his ramblings don't make much sense. Here's what I am able to make out:

"He's a freaky nerd!"

"This guy's better than Chuck Swirsky." [another WGN sportscaster at the time]

"Oh Jesus!"

"Catch the wave..." [reference to a Coke commercial at the time of which Max Headroom was a spokesperson]

"Your love is fading..."

"Oh, I just made a giant masterpiece printed all over the greatest world newspaper nerds." [??]

"My brother [mother?] is wearing the other one."

"It's dirty..."

"They're coming to get me..."

(Note also that he appears to be wearing a hollowed out dildo on his middle finger.)

Go here to read more details about this event. (alternate website)

Click here to search for related videos.

This clip aired on Sunday, November 22nd 1987, and is included in the following categories:

Viewer Comments

The audio sounds much better (and scarier) now. Cool...
Comment posted by jonrev on Thursday, November 1st 2007 at 7:11pm.

I didn't witness this when it happened, but I did see the initial break-in on WGN's news at about 9:40-9:45. I remember wondering what the hell happened, then all the news coverage the next morning!

This bit of TV history was swept aside when Mayor Harold Washington dropped dead at his desk the following Thursday morning (and I was sick that day and home to witness it....)

Comment posted by SuperCFL on Thursday, November 22nd 2007 at 2:52pm.

I remember the night this happened: I watched Star Trek: The Next Generation instead. I was crushing on Denise Crosby big time. It was all over the news the next day and I was kicking myself for missing it!
Comment posted by 4thtroika on Thursday, November 22nd 2007 at 11:06pm.

Another funny thing about this, it broke into Doctor Who, and the special effects were at about the same level :)
Comment posted by Joey G on Friday, November 23rd 2007 at 1:40am.

Yes, I was taping Doctor who that night as was my custom, and It was I who sold a copy of this VHS tape to Channel 5 news the next day.

They even sent out a newsman and camera crew to interview me at home. The evening news show this clip and the short segement of my interview.

I have since lost the copy I made of the news broadcast and I wonder if someone out there has a copy of this plus my 25 seconds of TV fame :)

Comment posted by bigfish1991 on Thursday, March 6th 2008 at 5:27pm.

bigfish1991 - Sorry I didn't respond earlier to this - been toooo busy. Anyway, that's a cool story. I do have a few different news reports about the pirating incident which I hope to post *eventually*. Even if I don't have it though, the good news is that the MBC should have a copy of that news broadcast as they started recording all local nightly newscasts starting in 1987. By the way, how much did you sell the copy of your tape for? Did you negotiate with them or did they just offer you a set amount? (Do you still have your original tape? Just wondering if it's possibly a quality upgrade)
Comment posted by FuzzyMemories on Monday, March 10th 2008 at 10:59pm.

I DIDN'T SEE THIS INITIALLY MYSELF AS I WAS IN BED AT THE TIME,BUT MY MOM AND DAD SAW THIS ON WGN VIA CABLEVISION(WE HAD MOVED TO MS. BY THEN) AND TOLD ME ABOUT IT THE FOLLOWING MORNING. RELATIVES BACK IN CHICAGO CALLED AND SAID THAT CH. 11 WAS ALSO INTERRUPTED BY "MAX"! THAT WAS WILD!!
Comment posted by 69TH&STONY on Saturday, March 15th 2008 at 10:04am.

I would love to see those news reports, Fuzzy. This hijack has really captured my imagination.
Comment posted by Akbar on Thursday, May 1st 2008 at 5:44pm.

I didn't see this at the time, because I was sleeping (I was in high school). My parents used to watch the comedian that was right before this (Dave Allen) so they turned off the tv before then. This was a big story at the time, even nationally. I've always hoped they'd catch the guy. Not because I cared if he got arrested. I just wanted to know how he did it. I think it's impressive that not only was he able to intercept a broadcast, but he never got caught. Maybe he's here lurking in the shadows. I wish he would appear somewhere since I'm sure statue of limitations has run out by now.
Comment posted by LaPrincess on Monday, May 5th 2008 at 12:38am.

FYI, Mayor Harold Washington passed away on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving Day; Nov.25.1987. Not Thursday. Anyway it WAS a pretty peculiar week, With the Max Headroom pirating incident on WGN-TV & WTTW-TV to start it off & The sudden death of Mayor Washington to practically end it.
Comment posted by Telenews on Wednesday, May 7th 2008 at 3:02pm.

You've got to know that whoever hijacked WTTW's broadcast tower must have been a total loser living in their parent's basement with a lot of time on their hands and nothing better to do.
Comment posted by CelesteK on Thursday, July 31st 2008 at 2:07pm.

Good idea. Let's try baiting him out of hiding with withering insults. ;-)

Seriously though, they must have had some significant knowledge and equipment or access to said equipment, in order to pull this off.

Comment posted by FuzzyMemories on Thursday, July 31st 2008 at 2:11pm.

> You've got to know that whoever hijacked WTTW's broadcast tower must have been a total loser living in their parent's basement with a lot of time on their hands and nothing better to do

No I'm not ... I mean no he isn't.

Comment posted by Polyrasmatazz on Thursday, July 31st 2008 at 2:47pm.

Ah ha! So tell us, was the spanking thing your idea or the girl's? ;-)
Comment posted by FuzzyMemories on Thursday, July 31st 2008 at 2:53pm.

She was the mastermind ... I mean overpower WTTW from my parents' basement? I can barely receive WTTW in my parents' basement.
Comment posted by Polyrasmatazz on Thursday, July 31st 2008 at 4:08pm.

Sorry. I was just saying that's all. :)
Comment posted by CelesteK on Friday, August 1st 2008 at 5:56pm.

I suppose this guy didn't know that Max Headroom was used to promote Coke not Pepsi?
Comment posted by CelesteK on Monday, November 10th 2008 at 7:56pm.

I just heard that "Max" died awhile ago of cancer and the FBI won't release the name or gravesite due to consideration of his family. Can anyone verify or deny?
Comment posted by Pete on Sunday, May 31st 2009 at 2:10am.

"Oh, I just made a giant masterpiece printed all over the greatest world newspaper nerds." This is a reference to WGN, the initials stand for 'World's Greatest Newspaper". Also, the song he was singing is the theme song to Clutch Cargo, a staple cartoon of Garfield Goose.
Comment posted by markmerlin on Wednesday, June 10th 2009 at 8:46pm.

I really need to update the video description on this one.
Comment posted by FuzzyMemories on Wednesday, June 10th 2009 at 9:45pm.

Oh, yuck! My theory is that Max deliberately made the sound quality really bad, so that it would be harder to figure out who he is. What do you guys think?

Comment posted by Detroiter, but Chicago Fan on Thursday, July 9th 2009 at 6:59am.

Anything is possible with this story,Detroiter.
Comment posted by Pete on Thursday, July 9th 2009 at 1:13pm.

I saw both times they hacked in. It was so funny and creepy. I don't know if it would be possible to do that sort of thing today, but some of the uptight networks and their completely lame TV shows could use a good hacking.
Comment posted by amb1971 on Thursday, July 9th 2009 at 3:57pm.

Yeah. Whoever gets up the courage to do this again should hack every network that broadcasts those stupid "reality" shows.
Comment posted by pacey988 on Thursday, July 9th 2009 at 7:10pm.

Now Fuzzy has posted some news broadcasts reporting the incident.
Comment posted by Loyal32fan on Sunday, August 30th 2009 at 9:14pm.

Has anyone linked to this ever?

I just saw that today.... have no idea if the 'story' is true, but, it is fairly convincing, and not sure what reason the person would have to make it up.

Comment posted by afdave on Wednesday, April 27th 2011 at 11:42am.

At 1:33 he says "Oh, my piles!" Ick.

Anyway, can you imagine being an impressionable youngster deciding to stay up late that night to watch Doctor Who, and then suddenly having this thrown at you? Nightmare city.

Comment posted by Studio76Art on Wednesday, March 27th 2013 at 1:54pm.

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This clip debuted on FuzzyMemories.TV on Tuesday, October 16th 2007.
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Comment posted in WFLD Channel 32 - Keyfax Nite-Owl Service - "Episode Two!" (Opening, 1981) by FuzzyMemories on Tuesday, October 14th, 2014 at 12:48pm CT

davismv - Thanks Mark! Well, we do have some late-breaking developments - once again provided by our researcher extraordinaire, Mr. Chris Tufts (Phantom). He found this interesting article on the development of Teletext in the U.S. as well as it's use on Nite-Owl. It's from New Scientist magazine and dates to July 22nd 1982. After reading this one has to wonder - what happened? Everything seemed so rosy. They had lots of viewers, and were making some advertising money apparently. So why did Nite-Owl quit just about a month later at the end of August 1982? Were they just tired of "giving it away for free"?

In any case, Chris found another interesting article, this time from Broadcasting Magazine dated September 7th 1981. In it, we finally learn that the true start date of Nite-Owl was early Friday, September 4th at 12 Midnight! Therefore, we can say with certainty that the clip you see here is the opening of Nite-Owl's Second Episode! We'll have to adjust the airdates of a few other clips to reflect this new information.

(T.K. - the answer to your question regarding Nite-Owl's music is also in this article - although who knows, perhaps they changed music providers at some point during the run of the show)

One other thing - the article mentions that WFLD was actually including teletext pages over its regular broadcasts since April of 1981. I had never heard this before. This information just leaves me wanting more. Did they transmit the teletext pages over every program that aired on WFLD since April 1981? Secondly, if you have a recording of a WFLD broadcast from that time period and you are able to fashion some kind of decoder, can you see the original teletext pages that aired during the broadcast? According to this article, there were at least 100 decoders floating around the Chicagoland area. Did anyone save one?

davismv - Regarding your questions: this was recorded by someone who was a "serial taper" but who also apparently had a short attention span. His tapes are filled up with 4-6 hours of material per tape, and rarely are there complete programs, but instead have little "snippets" (no pun intended) of news, sports, commercials, and whatever else struck his fancy I guess. There are a lot of good "bits" but unfortunately almost each one makes you wish he stuck with the recording at least a little longer. (but then again, if he recorded longer segments we wouldn't have the variety that he captured, so it's a six-of-one situation)

Regarding finding tapes: more and more I believe that the best way to find tapes is by asking neighbors, friends, or acquaintances. Why? Because unfortunately these home recorded tapes are seen by most people as virtually worthless most of the time, and if something is viewed as worthless it has way less of a chance of even making it to a thrift store or garage sale. People would just throw them out (which is sad, I know).

Also, some thrift stores now have policies of not letting "home-recorded" tapes make it to the shelf at all - they will just toss or recycle them if donated. The reason I've heard for this is that either someone complained before about something they found on one of the tapes ("adult" content perhaps), or the thrift store people are just being proactive and trying to avoid any issues like this from happening in the first place. In any case, it does stink. One idea I had that you might want to do is call all of your local thrift stores in your area and ask them if they ever get any home-recorded tapes and what they do with them. (first hurdle is making sure they understand what you're talking about - I usually use the term home-recorded tapes and then make sure it's clear by saying I'm not talking about "store-bought" movie type tapes - but tapes that people recorded themselves at home off of TV) If they say that their policy is to just throw them away or recycle them, tell them to save them for you. Give them your name and number and tell them you will pay for them too if they are what you're looking for. Make sure you're talking to a manager or someone at the store that actually has the power to make this change. Also remind the manager to inform his workers so that they are aware of what to do with the tapes too. And lastly, it couldn't hurt to call the stores again every couple months or so, and talk to the same manager if possible, to double check they are still saving tapes for you and that they haven't lost your contact info. :-)

One last tip - when buying tapes I don't buy them based on what is on the labels. The stuff written on the labels can be a red herring. I go by the age of the tapes. If you've been doing this long enough you can identify a pre-1985 videotape just by the box style as well as certain markings on the videotape itself. The stuff written on the labels can be a nice clue, but again I don't hold much stock in it. There could be a Sony K-60 Betamax tape that could potentially date to 1975 and the person could have recorded over most of it and wrote "Jurassic Park 2" on the label - doesn't matter - because you may still find an untouched 10-20 minutes at the end of the tape of a 1978 airing of Baretta with original commercial breaks for all you know. Anyway, happy hunting and of course please let me know if you find anything good. :-)


Comment posted in WFLD Channel 32 - Keyfax Nite-Owl Service - "Episode Two!" (Opening, 1981) by Phantom on Monday, October 13th, 2014 at 6:41pm CT

An article in Broadcasting Magazine in February 1982 says Nite-Owl had as many as 110,000 viewers on some nights.


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It struck me how much Keyfax resembles the graphics of the Prodigy online service several years later. I guess I shouldn't be surprised because they both used the NAPLPS graphics language, which was originally developed for videotex and teletext use.

Now I'm curious how Nite-Owl's music feed originated. Usually the all-night news tickers run by stations in other cities simply carried audio from a sister radio station or the local National Weather Service broadcast. It sounds like Nite-Owl had a dedicated playlist. Did WFLD have a full-blown radio automation system with multiple carts and reels run off a clock, like something by Harris or IGM? Or did someone just dub everything together onto a new reel for each night's playback? Or did the overnight master-control operator sit there and play each song back from its own cart?


Comment posted in WFLD Channel 32 - Keyfax Nite-Owl Service - "Episode Two!" (Opening, 1981) by Detroit4Chicago on Thursday, October 9th, 2014 at 12:09pm CT

Kinda neat to see an early computer-based newsfax system up and running for a UHF Station in a big market about this time. I'm thinking WFLD was trying this out to see if it became successful, it would have been used within years at the other Field stations across the country. Another possibility was to compete locally against WGN, WBBM and possibly WSNS (with of course, ON-TV) in the wee hours of the morning.

But what's neater-than-neat? Watching the Empire State Building take off like a Saturn V rocket in Commodore 65 form!


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