Doctor Who & the Video Pirate
On November 22nd, 1987, a mysterious thing happened on the shrouded mist covered mass that was called Fang Rock, and it was not the attack on a group of stranded boaters and lighthouse workers by a glowing green Ruton. Rather it was one of most infamous cases of signal hijacking since Captain Midnight had hijacked HBO’s signal in 1986.
It began at another station in Chicago WGN channel nine, a “Superstation” that was also available on some cable packages at the time. At about 9:10 P.M., a man wearing a Max Headroom mask (A mask of a science fiction TV show character that had recently been seen in the US on ABC television, and a popular Coca-Cola ad spokesperson.), interrupted sportscaster Dan Roahn, for about forty five seconds during the recap of that days Chicago Bears football game. The engineers at WGN television quickly changed the STL (Studio to Transmitter Link.), thwarting the hijackers attempt to further break into the signal. The Image had no sound at that time, and Roahn quickly apologized for the intrusion, although a bit distracted by the event, and went on with the rest of the newscast.
Almost exactly two hours later, at 11:15 P.M., the PBS station in Chicago, WTTW channel eleven, was also struck by the same signal pirate during the weekly broadcast of Doctor Who, in this case the excellent Tom Baker tale, ‘The Horror of Fang Rock‘.
WTTW did not have the same luck as channel nine earlier in the evening, its STL link not being able to be switched over as there were no engineers in the offices atop the Sears Tower, where it transmitters are located, and they were unable to switch successfully via remote control.
The small piece of footage goes on for about ninety seconds, with the character in the mask’s voice almost inaudible because of signal distortion, he merrily goes about such tasks as whipping a can of Pepsi around (A parody of Max Headroom’s sponsorship of Coke.), and doing several other odd things. including putting on a glove that he claims is ‘dirty’, and wearing an ‘adult toy’ on his middle finger of his right hand. At the very end of the footage, you can tell the video is prerecorded as the video pauses, for a brief moment. When we next see Max he is bent over, pants down, and an unseen female accomplice in a dress is slapping him on the behind while the person in the mask screams shouts of ‘hit me’. Then the man in the mask waves a signal to the supposed second accomplice, who is operating the camera, and the footage ends.
Audio on the tape was horrible, and the words are hard to make out. it would seem that ‘Max’ had some kind of grudge at WGN at the time, as he mentions that his break in is better than Chuck Swirsky, another WGN sports reporter at the time, and that he has made a masterpiece all over ‘those greatest worlds newspaper nerds’, an obvious reference to WGN, whose call letters stand for Worlds Greatest Newspaper, as they also own the Chicago Tribune newspaper.
The other parts of the audio are just as bad, but Max takes the time to parody the Coke commercial (‘Catch the wave!), and sing for the viewers at home (‘Your love is fading…’).
When the sun rose over the city of Chicago the nest day the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) was not at all in a joking mood about the antics of the pirates the night before, starting a search of the Chicago land area for the masked man and his accomplices. The head of engineering at WGN at the time, Robert Strutzel said this incident was not a cheap prank to carry out, as quoted to the Chicago Tribune, saying: “You need a significant amount of [transmitting] power to do that.”, while later an engineer for a station in Urbana Illinois said that the kind of transmitter with the power to that sort of signal hijack would cost between four hundred and six hundred thousand dollars.
The video pirates to this day have never been caught, and the city of Chicago, while being partially amused by the signal hijack, also realized its seriousness as well, as stated by Bill Baxman of Des Plaines, Illinois at the time of the incident. “I was watching Doctor Who, when all of a sudden it came on…..I thought it was you know, a little cute at the time, but when you think about it, its not that cute…they could be interrupting something important.”
Indeed they could like Doctor Who..
Besides being a footnote in Doctor Who history, this incident is one of the very few successful signal hijacks in history, and the video itself is odd to behold, it’s even quite scary if you are in the right mood, and I cannot imagine what it was like to have this just pop up on your television screen late at night in November.
I’d also like to make a note that I am NOT the video pirate! The newscast video above is from my You Tube channel and after I uploaded it a couple years back, the video and the fact I live in Chicago lead some in the comments to think I was the video pirate and was uploading the video to brag.
For the record, at the time of the incident I was ten, and as much as I’d like to think I was a pretty smart kid, signal hijacking was well beyond my years.