The Max Headroom Incident

They say you’re either a Coke guy/girl or a Pepsi guy/girl. (Me, I’m neither, because I don’t give a fuck, but my wife likes Coke, so I guess I’m a Coke guy by default.) This is a battle that’s been fought for ages, a mythical conflict of epic stakes to win the hearts of sugary, caffeinated drink buyers everywhere.

Before it was HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP! BWAHAH! (This is the scariest corn picture I could find.)

In this fierce war, both the Coca Cola Company and PepsiCo have pulled some stupid moves, but none is quite as infamous as New Coke. In the halcyon days of 1985, some dweeb in Coke’s marketing department decided it’d be a good idea to change the formula of their flagship product, without considering that people might actually like the way it tastes. Instead, they felt it prudent to make it taste a bit more like ass, and New Coke was born. For 3 whole months, the world was a different place. Coke wasn’t Coke anymore, and shit just got crazy.

Ways to not impress your customers: Tell them their taste sucks.

But New Coke failed, and miserably. They brought the old Coke back (but minus sugar, which is a conspiracy theory all its own.) But Coca-Cola Classic didn’t completely replace it. No, they decided to keep on making that shit for a while. When numbers started to flag, Coke needed a spokesperson for their obscene form of alchemy. They couldn’t find an appropriate one since no one could be paid enough to hock New Coke, so they decided to borrow one who wouldn’t bitch: A computer-generated character with a programmable voice and movements… but this was 1987 and that technology didn’t exist yet, so he was really just a dude with a bunch of shit stuck to him.

“Can we stop? I’ve really gotta Catch the wave like a motherfucker.”

His name was Max Headroom, and he wasn’t computer generated at all. He was an actor named Matt Frewer in some latex and prosthetics with a cheap stutter effect put on his voice. His show, cleverly titled uh… Max Headroom, was a cult hit, and they figured he’d make a great spokesperson for their flailing brand. Oddly, his appearances in New Coke commercials (and occasional VJ spots on MTV) were far more popular and memorable than his TV show.

“I was in The Lawnmower Man 2. Seriously.”

So now that I’ve caught all you kids who never even saw the 80s up on some ancient history, let’s talk about the 1987 Chicago Area Broadcast Signal Intrusion Incident, commonly known as The Max Headroom Incident.

On November 22, 1987, Chicago’s WGN (Yeah, that same one you get on cable if you live anywhere at all in the central time zone) experienced a broadcast interruption during the 9 o’clock news. Their signal was overtaken by a video feed that showed a man in a Max Headroom Halloween mask in front of a piece of corrugated metal swaying back and forth, mimicking the background geometric shapes seen in Max Headroom’s television appearances. There was no audio, only a buzzing noise. WGN engineers went around the signal and returned the feed to the news, where the anchors were confused and flustered, but continued on regardless.

But the hijacker, apparently upset that he couldn’t get his audio feed online and got cut-off mid-stream, tried again. He later interrupted a broadcast of Dr. Who on the Chicago area PBS station, WTTW, at approximately 11:15. This is what viewers saw:

Rumors that Max Headroom subsequently found his way into Dr. Who fan erotica are unsubstantiated.

WTTW engineers claimed that they, unlike WGN’s engineers, could not stop the signal, and that before they could work out a solution, the broadcast was over. The hijackers were never identified and no one has officially come forward. The following evening on the CBS news, WGN’s director of engineering commented, “It takes a significant amount of power levels to achieve this kind of an interference.” At the time, it was estimated that the equipment necessary to pirate the stations’ signals might have cost $25,000 or more. The FCC and the FBI both were unable to come to any reasonable conclusion as to who committed the hijack, much less why or even exactly how it was done. The statute of limitations on the crime has now passed, meaning that the culprit could come forward if he wanted.

“It’s true. I love the statute of limitations.” – Carl Tanzler

But even though the FBI and FCC failed to turn anything up, there are a few clues to be gleaned from the hijacker’s words. The broadcast from WGN and WTTW appear to be the same. The audio from the WTTW version includes several digs at WGN (The “world’s greatest newspaper nerds” comment, for example- WGN stands for “World’s Greatest Newspaper”, the former slogan of the Chicago Tribune), the anchor who was on-air at the time of the 9pm signal, and another sports anchor who was then employed at WGN, Chuck Swirsky. This implies that the signal was definitely intended for WGN and that it may have been recorded live at 9pm, or possibly even beforehand, but the hijacker became frustrated at WGN’s engineers blocking him and simply found another station to broadcast on. Some say that this may indicate that the hijacker may have had a grudge against WGN and singled them out specifically, but still wanted to mock them even after they had blocked him.

“Chicago will see my ass one way or another.”

Wikipedia 1 2 (People believe unsourced shit on Wikipedia all the time, though.)

There used to be more shit here that I made up to trick plagiarists. It’s gone now, but you can read about it here.