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30 years ago, a fake Max Headroom hijacked the airwaves on Chicago TV

Image: The Museum of Classic Chicago Television

Regular viewers of Doctor Who are quite used to witnessing strange phenomena. Aliens, robot dogs, giant maggots, curly-haired men with scarves traveling through time in a police box — nothing was off limits in the strange world of the classic British sci-fi show. However, on the evening of November 22, 1987, at 11:15 p.m., Whovians viewing Doctor Who in the Chicago area were puzzled by a strange and unsettling broadcast intrusion. A person disguised under a Max Headroom Halloween mask hijacked the WTTW PBS airwaves.


With crackling audio and radio distortion, this unsanctioned Max Headroom spewed a series of strange statements. He — presuming it was a he under the rubber — declared that local sports broadcaster Chuck Swirsky was a "fricking liberal." The phony Headroom then held up a can of Pepsi and muttered, "Catch the wave!" which just so happened to be the slogan for New Coke. The real Max Headroom was a Coca-Cola spokesman.

The pirate broadcast continued for a little over a minute, entering vulgar territory when this "Max" dropped his trousers and got spanked with a fly swatter.

To be honest, if any television audience was going to be amused by such a prank, it would this one. The stuttering, hip pseudo-computer-generated character had first appeared in a 1985 British cyberpunk movie, Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into The Future. Matt Frewer performed the character under prosthetic makeup, and admitted that Ted Baxter of The Mary Tyler Moore Show inspired his performance. A TV series for ABC followed in early 1987. Undoubtedly, fans of Doctor Who were aware of, if not fans of Max Headroom.

The same can probably not be said for Chicago Bears fans. Earlier that evening, this prankster had hacked into another station, when he suddenly popped up during NFL highlights in WGN-TV's Nine O'Clock News. Headroom did not speak in that first interruption. Only static could be heard, which is somehow more disturbing.

The Chicago incident made national headlines. The FCC engineer declared that the people responsible could face up to a $10,000 fine, a year in prison — or both. Yet, the television pirates were never caught. To this day, the perpetrators remain anonymous.

You can watch the WTTW footage on YouTube. Fair warning — it does containg some foul language and bare buttocks. Loyal Doctor Who lovers were taping the show at the time. Perhaps this is a case only a Time Lord can solve.


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