Hacking is a misfortune we’ve had to deal with since even before computers and the Internet came along. We often think of e-mail accounts, websites, and cloud servers when we think of hacking. This is even though hackers can strike plenty of other things, including live television broadcasts.
Hackers have been hacking television stations for decades. The most notorious of such incidents occurred in the 1970s and the 1980s. The hackers would interrupt a live program and chip in whatever live or recorded audio they want. Some even took over entire broadcasts and replaced them with their own videos.
10 Southern Television
On November 26, 1977, someone hacked into the now-defunct Southern Television several minutes into the 5:00 PM news. (Southern Television is now a part of ITV in the UK.) Viewers could still see the newscaster, Andrew Gardner, but they could not hear his voice.
Gardner’s voice was replaced by that of someone claiming to be an alien called Vrillon. Vrillon claimed to be the spokesperson of an alien group called the Ashtar Galactic Command.
Over the next six minutes, Vrillon warned humans against engaging in warfare. He ordered the destruction of every weapon and advised humans to live in peace. He added that only peaceful people would advance to what he called “the higher realms of spiritual evolution.”
Gardner continued reading the news as Southern Television engineers tried to recover their audio while the transmission lasted. Most viewers thought it was a prank or some mix-up. The hacker remains unknown.
On the evening of April 27, 1986, a hacker hacked HBO satellites during a live transmission of the movie The Falcon and the Snowman. The hacker called himself Captain Midnight and had full control of the satellite for four and a half minutes. During that time, he replaced the movie with a still image of a message that read:
FROM CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT
NO WAY !
[SHOWTIME/MOVIE CHANNEL BEWARE!]
Investigators later revealed that the hacker was John MacDougall, an engineer and satellite dish seller who had a personal vendetta against HBO.
During the early 1980s, satellite dish owners could use their dishes to receive any satellite-broadcasted programming, including that of cable networks. However, many cable channels, including HBO, started scrambling their signals, forcing viewers to buy the descramblers they were selling. HBO also charged $12.95 a month for access to its content. This affected the business of satellite dish sellers like MacDougall, since homeowners were no longer buying dishes.
MacDougall got back at HBO using equipment at the satellite transmission station where he worked. His job required him to upload movies to satellites. He had just uploaded a movie that evening when he directed the equipment at HBO’s satellite to transmit his message.
The Federal Communications Commission launched an investigation and arrested MacDougall a few months later. Fortunately, he got off with a light punishment. The court sentenced him to a year of probation and ordered him to pay a $5,000 fine.
8 WGN And WTTW
At around 9:15 PM on November 22, 1987, a hacker got into WGN-TV in Chicago. Fortunately, the incident didn’t last long before WGN engineers recovered their signals. However, the undaunted hacker returned to attempt another hack that night.
This time, the target was WTTW, also in Chicago. As he did with WGN, the hacker replaced WTTW’s live broadcast with a video of a man in a weird-looking mask. The man did several strange things, including ridiculing WGN and having a woman beat his bare buttocks with a flyswatter. He also did a free advertisement for Pepsi.
The notorious incident is remembered today as the Max Headroom Signal Intrusion. Interestingly, the hacker remains unknown. He would have received a one-year sentence and been ordered to pay a $100,000 fine if he had been arrested.
7 Playboy And American Exxxtasy
In September 1987, a hacker got into the live broadcasts of two adult entertainment cable television channels, American Exxxtasy and Playboy. The man hacked into the programs three times on the same day, twice into American Exxxtasy and once into Playboy. During all three hacks, he replaced the networks’ content with a religious message.
The hacker was later revealed as 38-year-old Thomas M. Haynie. Haynie worked for the Christian Broadcast Network (CBN), a cable channel that only produced Christian programs. Investigators claimed Haynie used CBN’s equipment for the hacks. However, CBN directors claimed that was impossible because their equipment was incompatible with Playboy’s and American Exxxtasy’s.
Investigators insisted that the equipment was compatible and even provided evidence to prove that Playboy was hacked using CBN’s equipment. Haynie was given one felony and one misdemeanor charge for the Playboy hack. Two charges of felony and misdemeanor involving the American Exxxtasy hacks were dropped because of a lack of evidence.
In August 2006, hackers working for the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) hacked into the Al-Manar television station, the official broadcaster of Hezbollah. The IDF replaced Al-Manar’s broadcast with pictures of Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah. The pictures were captioned with words like “Your day is coming, coming, coming.”
The IDF also transmitted pictures of dead Hezbollah fighters with captions like, “This is the photograph of a body of a member of Hezbollah’s special forces,” “Nasrallah lies: it is not us that is hiding our losses,” and “There are a large number of corpses like this on the ground and Nasrallah is hiding this truth.”
The photos of the dead fighters broadcasted to counter Hezbollah claims that it won the 2006 Lebanon War against Israel. Israel had actually bombed Al-Manar in an attempt to take it off the air during the war. However, the station somehow survived the bombing and continued broadcasting.
Israel also hacked several websites and radio stations belonging to Hezbollah around the time of the Al-Manar hack. In addition, it sent voice and text messages to Lebanese citizens informing them that its attacks were targeted at Hezbollah and not Lebanese civilians.
5 The Weather Channel
On April 18, 2019, someone hacked the Weather Channel. However, the perpetrator was more concerned with stopping the channel from running its regular programming than causing mischief. The hacker struck between 6:00 AM and 7:39 AM.
The Weather Channel was forced to air a recorded program throughout the hack. It later issued a statement saying that the hack was a “malicious software attack on the network.” Investigations later revealed that the incident was a ransomware attack. That is, the hacker wanted the station to pay him money before they could resume airing.
4 Channels 2 And 10
In November 2016, a hacker hijacked Israeli television stations Channels 2 and 10 on the same night. Both stations were transmitting the evening news when the hacker struck. He replaced their broadcasts with messages mocking Israel and suggesting that recent wildfires which had raged through Israel were God’s judgement on the nation.
Earlier that month, several parts of Israel were ravaged by wildfires that forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes. Around 80,000 people were evacuated in the city of Haifa alone. There were suspicions that at least some of the fires were the handiwork of Palestinian or pro-Arab arsonists.
The hacker also transmitted images of Islamic religious areas and an audio of an Islamic call to prayer. The hack happened around the time the Knesset was deliberating before voting on a bill to ban loudspeakers in religious buildings. The bill affected every religion, but there were suspicions that it was targeted at Muslims.
In February 2013, someone hacked KRTV, a station in Montana, during a broadcast of The Steve Wilkos Show. The perpetrator actually hacked into KRTV’s emergency alert system to warn viewers of an ongoing zombie invasion in Montana. The hacker claimed that zombies were leaving their graves and had already taken over parts of Montana. He advised viewers against approaching the undead assailants.
The warning was not taken seriously. Gawker later suggested it was probably an advert for The Walking Dead. However, the hack was real; investigations showed that the hacker had attempted to hack other television stations without success. His identity remains unknown.
In February 2009, someone hacked KVOA in Tuscon, Arizona, during a live transmission of the Super Bowl XLIII between the Arizona Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Steelers. The hack only affected viewers in Tucson who were watching the game on KVOA through Comcast.
The hacker replaced the game with 30 seconds of pornography featuring a couple engaged in what viewers called “a graphic act.” Interestingly, many people watching thought it was just another commercial until the couple, shall we say, went overboard. The video itself was from Club Jenna, an adult cable television channel.
Comcast was so embarrassed by the incident that it gave a $10 credit to 80,000 customers for free. Two years later, the FBI unveiled the hacker as one Frank Tanori Gonzalez. Gonzalez worked for Cox Cable at the time he hacked Comcast.
1 An ABC Affiliate In Wyoming
In 2006, someone supposedly hacked an unnamed ABC affiliate servicing Niobrara County, Wyoming. We say “supposedly” because details of the hack remain sketchy, raising doubts whether it even really happened.
The name of the station involved is a mystery, and there is limited information about the whole saga. The video that was supposedly aired during the hack definitely exists. However, its veracity is questionable. Nevertheless, people who say it happened call it “The Wyoming Incident” or “The Wyoming Hijacking.”
The hacker supposedly struck when he interrupted the evening news broadcast with a five-minute video of an animated head and several static texts. The first text contained the phrase “SPECIAL PRESENTATION.” Subsequent texts included “YOU ARE ILL . . . WE JUST WANT TO FIX YOU” and “YOU WILL SEE SUCH PRETTY THINGS.”
However, the hack gained infamy after viewers reportedly ended up with headaches, nausea, amnesia, and hallucinations after the hacker showed several strange pictures with an annoying tone. Some viewers also vomited on hearing the tone.
Some scientists think the broadcast wasn’t a hack or any sort of paranormal activity as some claimed. They say the tone that made people sick was likely created after some other signal interfered with their television signal. According to these scientists, the frequency of the tone was such that it caused hallucinations in those hearing it.