Thursday, September 19, 2013

A Broadcast Signal Intrusion

Got caught in a weird sequence of click-throughs yesterday and ended up losing about a half-hour learning of this obscure story from 1987 from Chicago about a couple of television signal hijackings occurring one Sunday evening in late November.

That evening someone managed to interrupt broadcasts on two different Chicago television stations (WGN and WTTW) with brief, unsettling signal intrusions, causing a lot of consternation and in fact ultimately never being discovered or caught.

The first interruption came over on WGN during The Nine O’Clock News and lasted just a half-minute or so. The second came a couple of hours later during WTTW’s showing of a Dr. Who rerun. That one lasted a couple of minutes. In the first case, WGN was able to retake control of its signal and cut things off quickly, but WTTW couldn’t do anything when they were hacked and thus had to wait for the pirates to sign off themselves before getting their signal back.

The incidents came to be known as the “Max Headroom broadcast signal intrusion” since both featured someone wearing a Max Headroom mask.

Some of us are old enough to remember the ubiquitous Max Headroom character pitching Coca-Cola products during the ’80s, in particular the doomed “New Coke.” Was kind of a goofy hybrid of an actual actor (Matt Frewer) and computer animation that was supposed to simulate an example of artificial intelligence. Started with a British TV movie, I believe, and there were other tie-ins all around involving the character who seemed to fit in well with the jittery MTV-influenced pop culture of the day.

The first signal interruption only featured distorted noise as a soundtrack as the person in the mask bobbed his head around before a rotating backdrop. By the time of the second, longer interruption the pirates had figured out how to include audio, too, and you can hear the dude uttering a lot of disconnected phrases (including Max Headroom’s “catch the wave” tagline), then eventually dropping his pants to receive a flyswatter spanking.

All of it reminded me a lot of the group Negativland who back in the 1980s pulled similar stunts that often were designed to satirize corporate culture and/or the media, sometimes engaging in hacking-type shenanigans (or “jamming”) as part of their modus operandi. In fact, the San Francisco-based outfit once made an entire CD full of tracks spoofing and commenting on the “Cola wars,” attacking Coke and Pepsi from just about every angle imaginable. That disc was called Dispepsi and necessarily included some Max Headroom samples, too.

There’s another weird connection between the Max Headroom broadcast signal intrusion and Negativland. At one point during the second break-in on WTTV when the fellow is tossing out all sorts of unconnected phrases and references, he hums the theme song to the short-lived syndicated cartoon show Clutch Cargo (1959-60), then says “I still see the X,” a line referring to one of the episodes of the show. Negativland had a track on an early disc (Points) titled “Clutch Cargo ’81,” an avant-garde mish-mash of piano, synth effects, and kitchen noises.

Although I don’t remember ever hearing anything about it, at the time the story of the twin signal intrusions earned a lot of attention, with even the CBS Evening News talking about it the next day. I guess it endures as a kind of touchstone moment among “culture jammers” and others interested in the history of hacking. As I mentioned, the pirates were never identified or caught, although the internet is now full of theories about the identity of the culprit(s).

I realized after reading through some of the stories and watching a couple of videos about it that I, too, had had my routine unexpectedly interrupted. In other words, some 25 years later the pirates had successfully knocked me “off the air” (so to speak) for a short while.

Thinking further, though, I realized that these days such interruptions are in fact the norm, not the exception. How many of us experience even a couple of hours’ worth of focused attention on anything anymore? How many of you even made it through the 2-3 minutes it took to get this far in this post without something popping up or clicking away at least once? (I know I didn’t write it without being interrupted several times, that’s for sure.)

How did I get to the Max Headroom broadcast signal intrusion? Let’s see. I’m pretty sure it started with my class, “Poker in American Film and Culture,” for which I have compiled a number of clips of poker scenes from movies. One is the short, funny scene from Stripes in which John Candy’s character delivers an expensive poker lesson to “Cruiser.” (“Dare me! Go on, bluff me!”)

Looking up the actor’s name who played Cruiser (John Diehl), I saw Bill Paxton listed in the credits. He apparently is in there somewhere in a non-speaking role as a soldier. Clicking through and reading about Paxton revealed that as an eight-year-old he was at the hotel in Fort Worth to wave at JFK as he left on November 22, 1963. (Coincidentally, the “Max Headroom broadcast signal intrusion” occurred on November 22, 1987.)

Somehow avoiding the JFK assassination rabbit hole -- which like most of us I have gone down plenty of times before -- I instead noted how in 1979 Paxton had directed the short film made to accompany the Barnes and Barnes novelty hit “Fish Heads” which I soon was watching on YouTube.

I can’t recreate the sequence from there, but I believe it was a sidebar click or three from there that eventually got me to the Max Headroom broadcast signal intrusion story. One of the commentors on the “Fish Heads” video succinctly describes my experience: “I’m in that weird part of YouTube.”

And for some of you I’ve probably now led you to what seems a weird part of the internet, too. But really, it’s all weird, full of distractions and interruptions that tend to fill up our days.

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