The Max Headroom Incident: The Greatest Unsolved Mystery in Pirate Television

Imagine an age before YouTube videos and on-demand streaming. You’re up late watching reruns on a cold, cloudy night in Chicago. On air is the Doctor Who classic “Horror of Fang Rock”—one of the scariest episodes in the British science fiction show’s run. Just as the plot turns, your television fuzzes out and Max Headroom, the 1980s fictional AI icon appears—and he’s staring right at you. Or at least, someone wearing a latex Max Headroom mask is.

Like an amateur broadcast from another dimension, this mad Max Headroom imposter shuffles in front of some spinning corrugated sheet metal, a homemade effect mimicking the television character’s signature wavy backdrops. The audio is distorted, but you can make out some murmurs about a “masterpiece for all the greatest world newspaper nerds.” A little over a minute later, the interruption ends and you’re back watching Doctor Who, wondering what… just… happened?

You’d just witnessed what would later be regarded as the greatest unsolved mystery in pirate television.

The event, technically called a signal intrusion, was the second that night on 22 November 1987. Not once, but twice, the masked Max Headroom and his fly-swatting accomplice had hijacked the airwaves, and decades later it’s safe to say: they got away with it.

These pirates got away with stealing a signal boost. Their dish antenna placed high above the city, the theory goes, overpowered the TV stations’ feeds on their way to the receivers that would amplify them across the Windy City.

And, thanks to those viewers hoping to record an old Dr. Who episode, the intrusion was captured for posterity. An important media artifact—unique among the mostly unrecorded history of pirate broadcasting.

From ephemeral radio stations playing rave music without a license, to the latest streaming sites with their strange and iterating domain names, examples of piracy are hard to discover; the pirates are trying to hide.  Clips like this one help offer us a glimmer of the pirate acts hidden in the shadows of property and propriety.

But even still we’re left to wonder: what was the point? The pranksters didn’t use their ill-gotten attention to evangelize. The clip’s boyish bum jokes epitomize the ambiguous politics of piracy. Was the interruption a protest against commercial culture, or a crafty prank? The meaning is just noise, but ultimately the noise can be so compelling. We begin to imagine things as we stare into that TV static: a Max Headroom unwilling to sell corporate culture, a public broadcaster willing to bare ass, and pirates catching the airwaves.

For a kid like me growing up online, the prank had all the ingredients of pirate lore. The 1985 Max Headroom movie portrays the character as an artificial intelligence gone rogue—devoted to fighting the subliminal advertising techniques deployed by its corporate masters. Soon after the movie’s runaway success, Max had turned into just another celebrity appearing in Coke ads. But these soda-tossing TV pirates liberated the Max Headroom character itself, and turned Max into an actual  pirate. The movie character and the crudely aesthetic knockoff merged into one. A perfect act of early electronic civil disobedience; signal piracy with a nascent cyberpunk flair inspiring generations of hackers to come.

Thanks to Wikipedia and the great article by Chris Knittel in Motherboard for helping me explain this video.

Back to Piracy