- 05-20-2020: Fixed a few typos, added a few more sentences.
Every since I first learned about the Max Headroom signal hijacking incident in 1987, I’ve been fascinated about it. There has been much coverage of this over the years, including some interesting “recreations” of behind-the-scenes footage.
There has even been a documentary about the incident. Here are some to check out:
- Oddity Archive episode 1 (2012) (and commentary version).
- Oddity Archive episode 137 (2017).
- The Bizarre documentary (2019).
- “Leaked Footage” (2019).
- …and dozens of others if you just search YouTube.
However, one thing remains consistent when I watch videos that theorize on this, or read the REDDIT threads, etc. Most seem to think that this was an inside job (it probably was; would be the easiest explanation). But, most don’t seem to realize how much you could do with good home equipment back in the early 1980s, let alone towards the end of that decade.
1980s home video was better than folks think.
My first encounter with a home video recorder was one my father had — a huge, hulking machine with giant push buttons and a pop up tray to insert the VHS tape. This was around 1980 or 1981.
Over the years, he had all kinds of cool video equipment. We had an early video camera, which could hook to the VCR using an adapter box that would power the camera and turn it’s output into audio/video cables. This camera was an old-style camera that would leave streaks when you moved it past lights due to the way the image sensor worked. Early, ancient stuff!
Later he had a backpack-sized VHS unit that could be ran off a 12V power supply or battery, and we took it, and the external camera, to Walt Disney World in 1982. As a young teen, it took me and another kid to lug it around (one with the recorder strapped to him, and the other operating the camera). This was all consumer equipment.
He also had Betamax (then later a SuperBeta) equipment as well. Folks commenting don’t seem to remember that Beta was widespread for awhile — early video rental stores had both VHS and BETA movies available to rent.
Before the FCC put and end to it, we had in-home TV stations! You could buy a box that would transmit video to a nearby TV. And by nearby, I mean down the block. My father would broadcast movies in the evenings and let the neighbors know so they could tune in and watch. And that TV transmitter box could be ran on batteries. I remember one Thanksgiving (? or maybe it was a Christmas ?) where I was walking around the festivities with the luggable VHS unit and camera, recording stuff while others watched what I was doing on the TV in the living room. I guess that was really cool, but it was all just normal stuff to me, having grown up around it.
And it kept getting better…
Each time my dad upgraded, the new equipment was even batter. I still have the full size SuperVHS camcorder my father gave me after he upgraded to 8mm video (and it still works!).
Back to Max
Back to the Max Headroom incident… a few things I want to say:
- Often you say people say Max was autistic, or drunk, or just nervous. But why? It does not seem to have been a live recording. There is an edit in the middle of the video! At best, the first half could be live then they switch to a tape, or the first part could be a tape and they switch to live, but it would be much easier to just pre-record and hit PLAY on a VCR. Max may have been drunk, but the evidence suggests he wanted it that way or he could have just re-recorded everything.
- The edit is often pointed out as being proof that he was a TV station insider because the edit is perfect. Look up “flying erase head.” You could buy VCRs that had this, and they would make seamless cuts from one recording to the next. They cost more, but you could buy a consumer recorder that had one. It was not anything magical or special. BUT, you didn’t even need one. That luggable portable VCR we had could often do really clean edits — even without a flying erase head! My dad edited so many productions using two of those units (including videos that ran at booths at boat shows, that I did computer graphics for, and even a travel video for the island of Belize, which I’d never heard of back then). We had another unit after that one which was not portable, but did edits so well I did STOP MOTION animation with it. Just a nice consumer VCR! You did NOT need professional equipment to get a clean edit.
- As to how they hijacked the signal, TV and radio stations commonly had (and still do) their studios at one place, and beamed their broadcast signal to the remote transmitter. Theories say they were up on a tall building. But why? Every radio station remote with a MARTI unit could broadcast from car dealerships. Heck, the run down AM radio station I worked at in 1987 had one, and it was ancient. And TV stations would go “live” from remote events all the time from their news van. I think the folks who talked about a vehicle (why a van?) being used probably make more sense than climbing up a building. It would be far easier to just park somewhere near the receiving dish and beam a low power signal to it, but I only have experience with doing that with radio stations. (There would be a lot of other issues, since I believe the remote news van would be beaming a different type of signal to a special receiver, and would NOT be capable of sending in the broadcast signal.) But, getting a signal in between the studio and the remote transmitter location could be done from the ground. (Or from a building; but it seems far riskier to climb a building and set equipment up.)
In a city the size of Chicago, I have no doubt that cameras and transmitters and all kinds of video things were readily available to those who wanted them. The only magic part here is the equipment that was used to overpower the TV station’s broadcast signal. An insider would have information, but folks could buy a lot of used equipment like this even back then (before eBay). The requirement to have need a license to operate it did not prevent you from buying it. (Anyone could by a HAM radio, but it was illegal to use it without a license, for example, and we had a place where I grew up that sold police radios and such.)
So who knows. Insider (or at least someone from the industry) makes sense. HAM radio/electronics hobbyists? Sure, why not. But I wish folks would drop the claims of the clean edit as proof it was someone with professional equipment. At least the Oddity guy talked about it looking like it was on a VHS unit (though that was just because of the poor picture quality — the fact that it did such a lean edit shows it would have been a higher quality machine).
I sure hope one day we hear the story behind this event.
Until next time…