It must have been about Nov. 23, 1987, when I was just a kid. I was lying on the couch watching TV with the sound off. The remote control didn’t work very well, so I had to lean in with the remote and press the mute button repeatedly to try to turn the sound on. That was when I noticed the strangest images on the TV. Grainy footage of a man in a suit and a rubber mask infiltrated the screen. The man was doing crazy things in front of a rotating makeshift metal background. The unreliable remote kicked in and the sound came on. Terrible squelching noises emitted from the broadcast as the strange TV-man spoke in a gravely electronic voice. My blood felt frozen. In vain I rapidly tried to get the mute button to work again. I jumped up and ran into the kitchen, scared of the offending sounds and images coming from the TV. I listened to the TV from the kitchen and learned that what I saw was just a preview for the upcoming news show. The report would be about a strange incident that had occurred on television the previous night.
My nerves frazzled, I watched the CBS network newscast when it aired later. It turned out that on November 22, 1987, a video pirate had attacked the Chicago television waves. He had temporarily removed Chicago’s WGN news show off the air, replacing it with his own twisted version of television. News viewers in the Chicago area were surprised to see the queer transmission of a man in a rubber Max Headroom mask on their screens. Max was swearing and jumping around, and his all-black sunglasses held no clues as to the intruder’s true identity. Within seconds a technician at the TV station had realized that something was wrong and switched the outgoing legitimate transmission to a different TV tower. The legitimate news show was back on the air. The Chicago newscaster was apologetic for the confusion, stating that he didn’t know what was going on.
Undaunted, the video pirate had struck again later that night. Again he used his powerful communication equipment to knock PBS’s transmission of Doctor Who off the air. Again he replaced the original signal with his own. This time no one stopped the transmission and it lasted in it’s entirety before returning control to PBS. At one point the pirate dropped his pants and a woman appeared from just off camera, she was spanking Max with a flyswatter. After about a minute, Doctor Who was back on, still in progress.
Something about the transmission was highly disturbing to me at the time. I was only a kid when I saw it and I got the heebie-geebies pretty bad for a while. I was scared to watch TV alone at night for fear that the Max Headroom video pirate might strike again. Considering I had only seen a newscast for the event and this alone had held a strong hold over me, I can imagine how potentially freaky the event would have been had I seen it live. Since I didn’t live close enough to Chicago to get those channels I was spared that particular fate. No one ever caught the Max Headroom video pirate and he never again broadcast his strange signal. It’s been said that the equipment necessary to intrude upon a television broadcast would have cost a lot. So who could get their hands on this powerful video equipment anonymously? Perhaps it was an inside job… the video pirate certainly had knowledge of how television broadcasts work. Given that the event had such a powerful effect on some people it might be possible that the whole thing was some sort of psychological operation perpetrated by some agency to determine the effect of messing around with people’s televisions. Whatever the real story is, one thing is clear: Some people get freaked out when their televisions start acting weird.