Friday, 10 July 2020

Friday Five: Broadcast Signal Intrusions

Friday Five

I love anything a bit creepy and mysterious, and anything to do with retro TV and radio. So it's a no brainer I'd be fascinated by broadcast signal intrusions. Ever since broadcast began there have been people attempting to disrupt, hijack or jam the signals. Reasons range from state censorship of foreign shortwave radio broadcasts right through to a random guy being angry about HBO's monthly subscription fees.

Sometimes signal intrusions are accidental, like the time in 2012 when a cut cable was being repaired and three minutes of a gay porno film was shown instead of Canada's CHCH-DT's morning news show. Sometimes they're all but a military operation, like the time in 2015 when TV5Monde was brought to its knees by a sustained cyber attack lasting over three hours. More typically they're the result of lone individuals or small groups of pranksters.

Here are five of my favourites...

#5. Zombie Apocalypse

On February 11th 2013 KRTV in Montana had their emergency alert system hacked during The Steve Wilkos Show to tell viewers:

'Civil authorities in your area have reported that the bodies of the dead are rising from their graves and attacking the living. Follow the messages onscreen that will be updated as information becomes available. Do not attempt to approach or apprehend these bodies as they are considered extremely dangerous.' 

The same message was later sent out over the EAS of WBUP (c. 20:30 during The Bachelor) and WNMU (c. 16:00 during Barney and Friends) in Michigan, and KENW in New Mexico. Meanwhile DJs joking about the event on rock radio station Z93 inadvertently triggered the linked emergency alert system of Wisconsin's WKBT-DT into repeating the zombie warning during their morning news broadcast.

All broadcasters in the USA have to sign up to the national emergency alert system, and the hack was enabled by stations which hadn't changed the default password on equipment they bought from Monroe Electronics - who had helpfully published the defaults in their publicly accessible online manual. News reports claimed that authorities had traced the source of the hack to outside the USA, but I failed to find any follow up on what action (if any) was taken against them. 

#4. Panorama

Not the UK current affairs programme, but the Czech Television Sunday morning tourism show. The regular schedule of pretty panoramic views of the Czech countryside was replaced on 17th June 2007 with shocking scenes appearing to show a nuclear explosion in the KrkonoŇ°e mountain range. It turned out to be a stunt by guerilla artist collective Ztohoven, but for those watching live it must have been a horrifying moment!

Six Ztohoven members ended up in court over the incident, facing prison sentences of up to three years a piece, but the charges were dismissed by a judge in March 2008.

#3. Help Us, Lord

Another intrusion from 2007, this time from Australia's Seven Network during a January 3rd airing of Canadian import 'Mayday: Head-on Collision'. The audio was suddenly replaced with a creepy loop of an American voice saying:

Jesus Christ, help us all, Lord. Fuck.

This went on for around six minutes before the proper audio signal was restored. Spokespeople for Channel 7 told newspapers that "It was a technical glitch due to an audio problem with the tape. The line actually is 'Jesus Christ one of the Navarines' and this is from the documentary [Mayday]."

As explanations go, it was more than a little lame. Especially when the audio was traced to a 2006 Channel 7 news broadcast showing footage of US supply truck driver Preston Wheeler pleading for his life while being fired on by insurgents in Iraq. Who spliced it into Mayday - and why - remains a total mystery.

Max Headroom Broadcast Signal Intrusion

#2. Max Headroom

Max Headroom was a character dreamed up to present music videos on Channel 4 back in 1985. Claimed to be a CGI creation, computer graphics of the time were nowhere near capable and Max was actually actor Matt Frewer under four hours worth of prosthetics and make-up. It didn't stop him going the 80s equivalent of viral and by 1987 he had his own US TV show in addition to being the face of New Coke. 

He was a big enough deal to spawn his own costume masks, one of which showed up in the most unexpected place - interrupting a WGN-TV sports report on November 22nd 1987. The screen went black for 15 seconds before showing someone in a Max Headroom mask stood before a rotating corrugated metal panel, accompanied by a buzzing sound. After 28 seconds WGN engineers succeeded in switching the broadcast frequency, patching viewers back into the studio where sports anchor Dan Roan told them: "Well, if you're wondering what's happened, so am I!"

A couple of hours later, during a broadcast of the Dr Who episode Horror of Fang Rock, Max Headroom's creepier twin struck again. With no engineers on duty at the relevant transmitting station, this time the signal hijack lasted 90 seconds until cutting out of its own accord. Although it was now WTTW, a PBS affiliate, who fell prey to the hoaxers it was still WGN they had in the firing line. Sportscaster Chuck Swirsky was singled out in their rambling diatribe which also proclaimed the hijack to be a masterpiece for the nerds at WGN. 

Over 30 years on and their identity remains a mystery, but research into the subject suggests it was almost certainly an inside job, presumably by someone with an axe to grind against WGN-TV. The equipment needed to overpower the Sears Tower transmitter simply wouldn't have been available to an amateur, no matter how dedicated. 

Southern Television

#1. United Kingdom

My favourite broadcast intrusion is also the earliest on this list, dating back to November 26th, 1977. Andrew Gardner was reading the early evening news on ITV franchise Southern Television when the picture went wobbly. At 17:10 the audio feed was then replaced with the voice of 'Vrillon', a self-proclaimed representative of the Ashtar Galactic Command. 

Although the visuals carried on as normal, the news bulletin giving way to a Looney Tunes cartoon, the voice of Vrillon continued to air for around six minutes. Wikipedia has a full transcript and issue #24 of Fortean Times printed a summary transcript that winter:

'This is the voice of Asteron. I am an authorised representative of the Intergalactic Mission, and I have a message for the planet Earth. We are beginning to enter the period of Aquarius and there are many corrections which have to be made by Earth people. All your weapons of evil must be destroyed. You have only a short time to learn to live together in peace. You must live in peace... or leave the galaxy.'

There are no official recordings of the event, though contemporary reports suggest there was at least one audio tape circulating in 1977. E.g. John Whitmore told Bob Holness in a December '77 interview, "I'd first like to refer to the recording itself of the complete message, one thing that struck me was that there was in fact nothing threatening whatsoever on the tape, and I was aware that most of the newspaper reports said it was threatening and frightening and so on, and so forth, and I just want to point out that that's sort-of a projection of the fears onto the material itself rather than the reality."

CITV show It's a Mystery recreated the event in 1999:

Southern was one of the few UK broadcasters vulnerable to such an intrusion, relying on a receiver at their Hannington transmitter rather than a direct landline. This meant that an intrusive signal wouldn't need to be particularly powerful to supersede that coming from the Rowridge transmitter on the Isle of Wight. Even so, in 1977 this would have taken a lot of specialist knowledge and equipment to accomplish - making it all the more remarkable that those behind the incident have never been identified.

Pulsar magazine (#5, 1978) suggested the culprits were a group who had prior experience: "On April 1st 1976 they broadcast banned records over the John Peel Radio 1 programme. On August 14th 1977 they took over radios 2 and 3 for three hours and transmitted a programme of music, made to appear as if it had come from an orbiting radio station called KSAT." (Google failed to confirm either event - anybody know more?)

1977, of course, was also the year of a major UFO 'flap' in the UK. I wrote a whole post on the Broad Haven Mystery a while ago, and there was a general growing interest in the subject with the imminent UK release of both Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (December '77 and March '78, respectively). Or, just maybe, Vrillon was the real deal...

This vid is posted multiple times on YouTube claiming to be original footage, though I couldn't find any confirmation:

ETA - EUFOSG (Essex UFO Study Group) Journal published a detailed overview of the event in their winter 1978 journal:

Which one is your favourite? Let me know in the comments! :)

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