By Michael Grasso / November 9, 2017
Almost as soon as the television entered the American home, forever changing the course of the American family, it became a novel, uncanny presence. With the introduction of telegraphy in the mid-19th century, a new virtual world—an uncanny “otherspace” of instantaneous communication over long distances, utterly new to the human experience—was unleashed. And for the next century, telegraphy, the telephone, and wireless radio all seemed to be teeming with phantom transmissions from other worlds, whether from the dead or from outer space.
Tales of television broadcast signals that intrude upon regularly-scheduled programming are by now a common cultural trope. In his seminal 2000 work, Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television, media scholar Jeffrey Sconce says that from its earliest days, television seemed to attract stories of weird, phantom signals. (He also notes with interest that the term for phantom images on television screens is “ghosts.”) Early in his book, Sconce introduces the story of a Long Island family convinced that their television is haunted. He also tells the urban legend of a test pattern from a Houston, Texas television station, KLEE-TV, being received on British televisions thousands of miles away. The fact that the station itself had ceased to be and changed its call letters years prior added to the weirdness of the story, but also helped expose it for the hoax it was.
However, roughly a quarter-century later, a regional television system in Britain did experience a legitimate broadcast intrusion, and this one purportedly came from a lot further away than Houston, Texas. In the early evening of November 28, 1977, a regular news bulletin on ITV’s regional broadcaster Southern Television was interrupted by a voice purporting to be a “representative from the Galactic [High] Command.” The intrusion lasted long enough to interrupt the rest of the news bulletin and part of a Looney Tunes cartoon. No recordings of the intrusion exist, although a contemporary student of New Age actualization and ufology, John Whitmore, claimed on British radio a month later to have heard a complete recording of the intrusion on tape. (Whitmore was involved with “the Nine” contactee group that ended up taking over the Esalen Institute in the late ’70s and early ’80s, ensnaring such luminaries as psychic Uri Geller and Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.)
Whoever created this broadcast interruption was not only highly technically savvy but also deeply embedded in the folklore and culture around UFOs, and those associated with the Nine seem like a logical suspect. Their associate Stuart Holroyd, who wrote 1977’s Prelude to the Landing on Planet Earth, claimed that there was a plan on the part of aliens to interrupt television broadcasts on Earth—to be executed during the week of November 18-22, 1977. If the Nine were responsible, they were a week late for Holroyd’s prediction, but they chose their target well. Southern Television’s signal was one of the few regional transmitters at the time vulnerable to manipulation. A single transmitter in Hannington, Wiltshire received its feed not over a secure hard-wired connection but from a secondary transmitter on the Isle of Wight.
Several dubious transcripts of the intrusion have shown up in ufological books since. It’s fascinating that the single detail on which most accounts differ is the name of the representative of Galactic Command: some say it was “Asteron,” others “Gillon” or “Vrillon.” (There are also factions that believe the name could have been “Ashtar,” a figure from a 1950s contactee movement, or even “Vorilhon,” a.k.a. Claude Vorilhon, the founder of the Raelian UFO cult.) Whatever the true original text was, earwitnesses agree that the message concerned the aliens’ judgment over mankind’s tendency towards violence and savagery. The broadcast explicitly used 1970s New Age terminology (“the Age of Aquarius,” for example) to send humanity a warning. This sort of contact from aliens was common in both ufology and pop culture since the 1950s. The Southern Television broadcast intrusion proves a pleasing unity between ’50s UFO contactee culture and the ’70s UFO resurgence: the intrusion occurred a week after the US release of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. British television had also recently seen the April Fools’ Day 1977 release of the mockumentary Alternative 3, about a mysterious “brain drain” of scientists being caused by Moon and Mars colonies being built for the elites to escape imminent ecological disaster on Earth.
Over in 1980s America, broadcast intrusions had a decidedly more earthbound, but no less uncanny, profile. With the explosion of satellite and cable television, and the increasing use of microwave transmissions to transmit both network and cable content, there were more and more venues for broadcast-breaking mischief-makers. In April of 1986, a Home Box Office airing of 1985 espionage thriller The Falcon and the Snowman was interrupted for over four minutes by a set of color bars with the text legend:
FROM CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT
NO WAY !
[SHOWTIME/MOVIE CHANNEL BEWARE!]
The identity of “Captain Midnight” was revealed after an intense, months-long investigation by the Federal Communications Commission. John R. MacDougall, a video technician and sometime satellite dish salesman, confessed to the crime and struck a plea bargain with authorities a few months after the incident. The story of how and why MacDougall decided to interfere with the HBO signal became the stuff of ’80s satellite broadcasting legend.
MacDougall’s satellite business had been hit hard by HBO’s and other providers’ then-recent decision to scramble satellite feeds in an attempt to prevent dish owners from receiving over-the-air feeds for free. MacDougall was moonlighting at a local Florida satellite uplink service in the spring of 1986. With the equipment and uplink dishes found there, and all the major cable television and network satellite locations and frequencies in hand (publicly available thanks to the community of satellite dish owners), MacDougall was able to overwhelm HBO’s relatively weak signal. A pitched battle ensued between MacDougall and HBO’s engineers, with the power of the competing signals eventually ratcheting up to a potentially satellite-damaging 2,000 Watts. MacDougall’s single act of protest led to a sea change in satellite uplink security measures and an increase in the severity of legal ramifications for hacking satellite signals.
A year later, a more localized broadcast signal hijack happened in Chicago, which would eclipse Captain Midnight in terms of notoriety. During the 9 o’clock news on superstation WGN, a phantom signal interrupted the sports segment. A figure wearing a mask of television character Max Headroom appeared briefly, accompanied by audio distortion. The interruption lasted less than a minute, leaving the WGN anchors mystified and the engineers at WGN, one of the most powerful media outlets in the United States at the time, heaving a sigh of relief that their attempt to change the microwave frequency to stymie the hijacker succeeded. But Max wasn’t finished. Later that evening, during a late-night airing of a Doctor Who serial (“Horror of Fang Rock”) on public television station WTTW, he reappeared and proceeded to interrupt the signal for 90 seconds. This time, Max had the chance to speak (again, the audio was heavily distorted).
The prankster’s script indicated motivations a good deal more parochial and less high-minded than Captain Midnight’s. Max mocked WGN (home of “all the greatest world newspaper nerds”) and WGN sports broadcaster Chuck Swirsky, made reference to 1960s cartoon Clutch Cargo (itself a fairly uncanny artifact of television history, due to its “Syncro-Vox” lip-sync overlay method of animating the characters’ mouths while they spoke), and devolved into scatological and sexual humor as Max complains about his hemorrhoids and, in the intrusion’s grand finale, is spanked bare-assed by an accomplice in a French maid outfit. “Horror of Fang Rock” then continued; the legions of Doctor Who fans who taped the episode that night ensured we have a record of the intrusion 30 years later. The perpetrators of this hijack have never been caught.
The Max Headroom intrusion ends up being more bizarre and unsettling than its frankly sophomoric subject matter. There’s the overall audio-visual effect of the microwave hijack distortion and the singularly recursive phenomenon of the Max Headroom mask. This Max is a mask of a character who is himself a mask, created through latex makeup and computer effects, doubling the effect of the uncanny valley. Then, there’s the specific choice of Max Headroom as a proxy for the pirate. The story of Max Headroom’s creation for Channel 4 in the UK in the mid-1980s began with the idea of creating a virtual television host. In both Max’s scripted television movie from 1985 and the American series version of Max Headroom that aired on ABC from 1987-88, Max is a digital copy of investigative reporter Edison Carter. In this near-future media landscape dominated by huge telecommunications corporations and televisions that, like Orwell’s telescreens, cannot be shut off, Max is born into a seething media landscape. He absorbs stray broadcast signals and satellite feeds and becomes more or less an avatar of television, constantly interrupting programs in this future ruled by television to comment on the idiocy of the programming. Outside the scripted series, Max also became a media icon in our world; between his interview program (airing on Channel 4 in the UK and on Cinemax in the US) and his high-profile position as a spokesman for Coca-Cola (also referenced in the intrusion video by the hijacker holding up a can of Pepsi and saying “Catch the wave,” a Coke slogan), Max was world-famous by November of 1987.
Jeffrey Sconce notes in Haunted Media that media studies scholars found Max’s postmodern stance endlessly fascinating in the late ’80s and early ’90s. As a creature of television, born into television, who appeared to comment snarkily and ironically on the events around him, Max Headroom was an indicator of the medium’s natural relationship to commentary, irony, and insincerity. These ideas were later recognized by David Foster Wallace in a prescient 1993 piece titled “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” In this essay, Wallace notes that television’s nature as a self-contained, self-congratulatory medium is perfectly attuned to the worst impulses of postmodern literature and of postmodern life: “The best TV of the last five years has been about ironic self-reference like no previous species of postmodern art could have dreamed of. The colors of MTV videos, blue-black and lambently flickered, are the colors of television.”
Television advertising also successfully integrated postmodern theory in the 1980s, creating an illusion of power and individuality in the television viewer-consumer all while selling them products. Wallace cites media scholar Mark C. Miller’s examination of the award-winning Pepsi spot where a van drives onto a sweltering beach and broadcasts the sound of a fizzing Pepsi to entice the essentially-trapped beachgoers. Miller notes, “The ad does not so much extol Pepsi per se as recommend it by implying that a lot of people have been fooled into buying it. In other words, the point of this successful bit of advertising is that Pepsi has been advertised successfully.” Max Headroom as cola pitchman suddenly makes a lot of sense.
So what does the history of the broadcast intrusion tell us about television as cultural force? These intrusions are, in their starkest form, a viewer taking control of the media and becoming a producer instead of a consumer. Instead of seeking absolution from one’s complicity in the media spectacle as the medium itself demands, digital pirates like the Chicago Max, Captain Midnight, and Vrillon of the Galactic Federation successfully took over the overwhelmingly dominant media of their time to get their own idiosyncratic messages out. The idea of an ordinary citizen becoming a broadcaster, even if it was for a couple of minutes and illegal, was a radically dangerous and decentering gesture in the 1980s. The rise of satellite and microwave technology and gaps in broadcasters’ ability to keep pace with the ingenuity of ordinary citizens made it possible. As the Captain Midnight case showed, the networks and the government weren’t about to let something like this happen again.
Is our contemporary internet haunted in the same way the television was? The internet has (supposedly) radically democratized our ability to take control of the media. But, in the end, money and advertising control the internet in a similar way that they used to control (and still do) broadcast television. Instead of a broadcast network monoculture or even the illusion of choice that cable TV provided, the internet is a bewildering overload of information. The content-producing and content-providing gatekeepers are increasingly in the same hands today as they were in 1987, and uncanny “intrusions” on internet media are increasingly reduced to the product of opaque algorithms churning out disturbing juxtapositions empty of real meaning with virtually no real humans involved. Between the contemporary internet’s nostalgic love of television-related “creepypastas” like “Candle Cove,” and given recent real-life intrusions at a time of heightened sensitivity to both apocalyptic warnings and to telecommunications fraud and hacking, there is an awareness that the “haunted” nature of television is unique. It’s a nostalgia for a more personal, more easily-navigable experiential landscape, for the occasional pirate broadcast that intrudes on a medium and points out the limitations and foibles of those seemingly omnipotent powers-that-be.
Michael Grasso is a Contributing Editor and Exhibit Curator at We Are the Mutants. He is a Bostonian, a museum professional, and a podcaster. You can read his thoughts on museums and more on Twitter at @MuseumMichael.