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Max Headroom broadcast signal intrusion (wikipedia.org)
211 points by 9nGQluzmnq3M on Nov 23, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 54 comments

If you have never seen the original 1985 British film that introduced "Max Headroom: 20 minutes into the future", you are in for a serious treat. It is so much better than I ever expected -- and it's only 55 min long. More relevant than ever:


Even at the time I thought the series was prophetic:-

Janie Crane: "An off switch?"

Metrocop: "She'll get years for that."

[0] https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Max_Headroom_%28TV_series%29#T...

I could not find the US TV show available for purchase anywhere. It wasn't a great era for TV quality, though.. I hope they do a Netflix reprise!

Shout Factory released the series on DVD. It's not available on Blu-ray or streaming that I'm aware of.


Also, shows like "Embarrassing Bodies" (UK Channel 4) are very similar to the "Dr Duncan Show" (i.e. members of the public showing their personal illnesses/diseases on national TV).


thanks I watched it all and came back to upvote. I remember seeing Max on Pepsi commercials, never knew he came from this show.

Max Headroom also hooked up with The Art of Noise, to perform Paranoimia! (extended remix:)


Matt Frewer, the guy who played Max Headroom, also played Carnage in Altered Carbon:


And a really obnoxious time traveler in Star Trek: TNG:


He appeared as guest on David Letterman frequently:


The Screen Savers interviewed him on Tech TV in 2002:


He never made the cover of The Rolling Stone, but he did make the cover of Mad Magazine and Newsweek:


And who can forget him reciting the alphabet on Sesame Street, and blonde cleft-chinned Link Hogthrob as Max Hogroom in Muppet Magazine:



And honestly, who hasn't gotten stoned and binged out on a whole box of delicious Max Headroom candy from Topps:


And of course his digital visage also appeared in Doonsbury as Ron Headrest, a parody of Ronald Reagan:


>Ron Headrest is a fictional character in the comic strip Doonesbury.

>During the 1980s, Garry Trudeau thought it would be fun to do a political parody of the television program Max Headroom (of which he was a fan). He combined the concept with then-president Ronald Reagan, to produce Ron Headrest, the world's first electronically simulated politician. (The name "Headrest" was a humorous allusion to the frequent and lengthy naps that Reagan was notorious for.)

>The idea was that Ron had been created to serve as a backup president during the long periods Reagan spent on vacation. He appeared as a stylized version of Reagan’s head and shoulders on a television screen, complete with sunglasses. Because he was electronic, he would have no memory troubles, and his sense of humor and attitude were designed to appeal to young voters.

>It ends up being a disaster: Headrest is stuttering and incompetent, and openly mocks the administration he is designed to serve, and causes nothing but trouble. During the first week of his appearance he flashes the White House's phone number on his screen and tells children to call if they wanted "rock-solid information on safe sex." (Because the number printed was accurate, the real world White House got calls which jammed their switchboards. Eventually they got revenge by giving callers the number of Trudeau’s editor.)

>In the continuity of the comic strip the White House staff is less creative, and simply try to turn Headrest off. But like his televised counterpart, Ron escapes into the airwaves and begins causing trouble wherever he can find a television and someone to listen to him. He takes particular delight in tormenting Mike Doonesbury, whom he calls "Y-Person" (meaning yuppie). Headrest also seeks the 1988 Republican Party presidential nomination in his own right, but withdraws from the race, promising to go into reruns instead.

>Ron appeared regularly throughout the Reagan and Bush presidencies and then began to show up less frequently. He only appeared a few times during the Clinton administration, and then disappeared entirely. The real Ronald Reagan had retired and left the public view, and Max Headroom's program was long gone, making the character far less topical than he had once been. Although Doonesbury characters rarely disappear, as of May 18, 2019, Ron Headrest hasn't been seen since November 6, 1994.

The same effect was used in the "80s Café" scene in Back to the Future II with Reagan, Michael Jackson and Ayatollah Khomeini:


I most recently spotted him on the show The Magicians. https://themagicians.fandom.com/wiki/Matt_Frewer

Frewer also played a CSIS officer in the underrated series Intelligence, which had an interesting take on Canada vs US CIA/DEA and Chinese spying/geopolitics.


Could you summarize the way in which it is "relevant" (and to what)?

Dystopian media influenced oppressive states, a nation placated with purile entertainment, an underground of those who 'really know' what is going on fighting to restore humanity, watched over by a slightly crazed AI ...

The movie (not the followup Cinemax TV music/interview show) was a pioneering work of cyberpunk.

Gibson's Neuromancer had only been published a year earlier, and some of the tropes in this movie ("I need an operator!") would show up later in The Matrix and other works.

The Verge did an interview with the creators:


It's a story about AI, media monopolies and the dangers of new forms of advertising.

Implications include the need for heroic journalism and cyberpunk media channels.

Always a favorite whenever it shows up here. It’s like you know this person was breaking the law but no one was really hurt and it goes unsolved still. It’s a great mystery story of someone messing with a system no one really messes with.

It's a great go-to in the unsolved mystery community when people look for a fun light-hearted mystery.

It's amazing that the identity of the signal pirate has never been leaked. Doubly so since there were at least two people involved. Surely the statute of limitations has passed. Perhaps everyone involved passed away before they ever felt comfortable going public with their story.

Long ago I read a (4chan I think?) post from someone claiming that it was very possible he knew the people who did this hack.

He said he wasn't 100% sure, but that there were strong reasons to believe so.

He explained that he used to hang out with 2 brothers, one of which had some mental issues, perhaps autism or something similar, that acted strange at times, and that seemed to have skills with radios and other tech. He also remembers that a girl which is very briefly shown in the hacked video stream looked like the girlfriend of the other brother.

Also recalled that the voices in the stream sounded familiar and I think he even mentions remembering that they had a sheet of metal similar to the one in the video, and that his theory was that the brother with autism was the one with the mask, while the other one rotated the sheet of corrugated metal, while the girlfriend was recording them.

Anyway, I don't remember the exact details and of course I'm not saying the story is true or anything...

But it did have some interesting air of mistery even if it were false. The poster didn't seem like he was trying to lie to anyone, just that he genuinely thought he kew the people responsible for the hack.

And then the story he was telling suddenly portrayed a very cool and odd piece of tech "history", if it were true.

To me, this always sounded a little bit like real-life cyberpunk stuff and every time I remember about Max Headroom I'm reminded of the hack and the story I read by random chance, on a random forum like 4chan, thinking, what if it was real and I was just reading there a post written by someone that knew the Max Headroom hacker...? I wish very hard for that to be real.

Well... I'm rambling here, but I guess that's the magical internet a lot of us feel drawn too?

Ahhh, I guess the story was taken from the reddit posts talked about in the vice article posted below and perhaps spiced up a bit.


My theory is that this wasn't the only stupid tech stunt done at that party. Some of the others might still have consequences if known. There's also the possibility that people might've been new to the chemistry involved and never remembered what happened once they rejoined consensus reality.

To give a context to the younger readers, first, what of who Max Headroom was:


The original was not done with computers:

"the computer-generated appearance was achieved with prosthetic make-up and hand-drawn backgrounds. Preparing the look for filming involved a four-and-a-half-hour session in make-up, which Frewer described as "gruelling" and "not fun""

But it looked like magic at that time.



One of my favourite shows growing up. Hard to believe it was all done 'analog' and no CGI. Adds rawness and charm to the whole thing - Kind of like 'Thunderbirds'.

Is there any knowledge of the mechanism used to hijack the signal, or what WGN/WTTW did to protect against it afterwards?

The Wikipedia article seems to indicate even the engineers never figured it out.

I lot of broadcast operations have a frequency that isn't in the broadcast band that they use to send their signal to a remote tower. Presumably if you point a stronger transmission at the receiver you can become the dominant signal. Or at least that's what I always thought. I would think you would have needed some inside information or otherwise have worked in the industry at the time to really pull this off? Maybe not, though.

Every microwave uplink frequency is listed on the the FCC's ULS site:


Usually the uplinks are in the 10+ GHz band, and the antenna (usually looks like a big bass drum on the tower, http://www.steeltowerchn.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Micr...) is pointed towards the station's studios.

So hijacking it would not be trivial. You need to be in the line of site and be able to produce enough power to overwhelm the real signal, which isn't trivial at those frequencies. There's also probably something similar to ATIS to stop unauthorized transmissions.

Here's KIRO uplink from their studio to a tower atop Queen Anne Hill in Seattle. The exact location of the transmitter and receiver are in the locations tab.


> ...hijacking it would not be trivial. You need to be in the line of site and be able to produce enough power to overwhelm the real signal, which isn't trivial at those frequencies.

-While power at 10GHz is non-trivial (though significantly less so now than in the eighties!), you can cheat by being closer to the remote tower than the official source, as received power is reduced by the square of the distance from the transmitter.

That's a good point. I've never really gotten to play with parabolic antennas though, how much would being at the wrong angle affect reception?

You can find "lobe diagrams" for common antennas. You just look at the angle that the receiving point is at in relation to the transmitting antenna in the lobe diagram.

There is no mention of the read broadcast being overlaid by or fading into the attackers signal, which I would expect if they were pointing an antenna very carefully to maximize their attack.

Instead, I think someone physically unplugged a signal cable somewhere and plugged in their own feed. Possibly even an insider.

-Just wagering a guess here - the link was probably frequency modulated; an FM receiver has a very strong capture effect - the strongest signal received on the tuned frequency is the only one demodulated; any other, weaker signals are effectively just raising the noise floor.

Exactly this. This is why planes use AM and not FM so at least you can tell if you're doubling with another station.

Slight nit-pick: while aircraft primarily use AM, FM is frequently used in services like fire-fighting and forestry.

Source: installed FM radios more times than I can count, including troubleshooting one last month

For anyone interested in this stuff, I highly recommend the KMZ file for Google Earth Pro from:


Be sure to get the Google Earth Pro desktop version, not the Chrome version:


The open the KMZ file linked on the fccinfo page above and start exploring!

What is neat is that they show you the point to point path for the microwave links. (Select Broadcast Microwave in the sidebar.)

> Every microwave uplink frequency is listed on the the FCC's ULS site:

You think that was the case in 1987?

The information was still available. You might have had to send the FCC a letter though.

What about 10GHz+ is important to uplink transmission? Better directionality? Harder to spoof?

Smaller antennaes needed for the same gain as lower frequencies.

Terrible ability to go through, say, a concrete wall, but that’s an issue for broadcast, not point-to-point. Possibly an advantage by reducing noise from other 10ghz signals (maybe harmonics from a bad microwave oven?).

They also have narrower fresnel zones than lower frequencies, so it’s easier to hit your target without having to be too high at both sides.

And the usual tradeoffs: Spectrum is available and you want equipment that’s cheap and reliable, but not too cheap either.

Thanks for the info.

What happens when a seaplane flies through that signal path? Does KIRO drop out?

That's a good question. Thinking of the paths I usually see them take though, I think the beam would always be too low. They'd end up both too close to the tower and too close to the ground.

Max Headroom is now more relevant than ever. If you haven't watched the TV series, stop what you're doing and get the binge over with.

The dystopian future predicted in this series is well and truly upon us - a case of fiction predicting future truths.

We need Max Headroom to guide us out of the disaster of the modern Internet. Alas, we have Zuckerberg instead ..

I too keep telling people to watch it.

We are close to accidentally creating an attention-democracy where whoever is able to keep the attention of the masses has the most influence over politics. It could be argued that whoever is able to get the most attention is also the most in tune with what people want. Since centralized filtering of news is an important part of the political meta-game of building opinion, perhaps it is not wrong to formalize this process. Enter Max Headroom.

I don't think that this new and it arguably predates democracy. Being able to keep the attention of the masses influencing policy has generally been called 'leadership' - even if they are frankly idiots who lead them straight off cliffs. It is another one of those annoyingly conflated words like 'empathy' assuming that understanding people and caring about them are the same - leadership has connotations of actually being effective and getting others to follow.

True. Follow-the-leader is easy and democracy isn't. Especially when idiots are all too willing to jump off cliffs instead of acting with the responsibility that democracy places upon us. Perhaps there exists forms of democracy which steer us away from the obvious precipice.

Ron Headrest for president!



>HELEN THOMAS, UPI White House Reporter, UPI ARCHIVES MAY 7, 1987

>Headrest is shown saying, 'That re-reminds me! Kids! Need rock-solid information on safe sex? Call this number on your screen!' - 202-456-1414, the White House.

I've always been surprised some inspired performance artist hasn't done this to the live sound feed at a big music festival like Bonnaroo or Coachella yet. Audio runs from the stage/band to a sound guy in the middle of the field who controls the mix then from there it goes back across the field to the PA system mounted on stage. The audio cables are literally just big snakes that run right through the crowd where anyone could access them. Highjack a post mixer cable and bob's your uncle.

The only hitch would be that afaik at festivals the pa arrays are passive so you'd need to steal power too so you can power an amplifier and send a powered signal, but if you managed that it'd be even worse than the tv broadcast intrusion because there's no easy way to shut it off, the sound guy has no control because you're after him in the signal chain and nobody onstage is set up to handle something like that. It's not like beyonce is gonna climb the scaffolding and start unplugging speakers when the crab rave starts playing inexplicably.

Two problems with that approach at large scale shows:

1) These days the cabling is run inside a run of barricade bisecting the crowd, so it's in a secure area the entire time

2) Modern PA systems at shows of that size have almost exclusively moved to digital snakes / audio networks, not analog

To realistically pull that off you'd need production access to the event to tap into the audio network and re-route things. That said, given the number of people with appropriate access and the fact that InfoSec isn't a high priority, that actually seems pretty doable.

Once they realized what was going on though, a few breakers flipped would drop power to the amps or speakers (depending on whether using powered or passive arrays) and it would be over (which would happen pretty quickly since the power distro is very well organized and labeled since quick troubleshooting is often necessary).

I'm actually surprised this doesn't happen with wireless microphones more often. While the industry is slowly moving towards digital transmitters, many broadway shows still use old body pack analog transmitters on their actors. Since these shows are stationary they are likely using the same frequencies for each transmitter every night.

I can't imagine it would be too hard to figure out some of these frequencies and transmit over them into the PA. There is a pilot tone but I don't think it'd be difficult to spoof.

I used to work in a shop that rented out audio equipment to broadway shows.

Not quite the same thing, but James Randi famously debunked a “faith healer” by listening into to their analogue earpiece: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q7BQKu0YP8Y

Maybe more on-topic, an early demonstration of long-distance radio was hijacked: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sP2qqMegNKA

I have always felt a personal annoyance about this, as it interrupted an episode of "Horror of Fang Rock" - one of my favorite Doctor Who stories.

It was the KLF

Maybe one day people will stop posting about this inane nonsense.

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