He called himself “Captain Midnight” and for over four minutes he rocked the world of satellite television.
The date was April 27, 1986. The time: 12:32 a.m. If you happened to be watching the Home Box Office Network’s broadcast of “The Falcon and the Snowman” then, you saw the message sent out by Captain Midnight. Right after the movie concluded its opening credits, a 25-year-old Ocalan working for a local teleport uplink operator jammed HBO’s transmission with a standard color test pattern that included the following statement:
FROM CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT
(SHOWTIME/MOVIE CHANNEL BEWARE!)
Captain Midnight was actually John MacDougall, who in those days operated a satellite television dealership when it was all the rage for homeowners to place a huge dish in their yard in order to capture direct satellite feeds of premium cable programming. When HBO began scrambling its signal and charging what were then exorbitant fees, the dish craze began to wane and dealers of the product took a major financial hit.
With business sour, MacDougall went to work as a part-time operations engineer for Central Florida Teleport, which uplinked services to satellites. It was after one of his shifts on a Saturday evening that he decided it was time to send his message to HBO and all viewing. By simply aiming his dish at the satellite Galaxy I, Transponder 23, and applying more power than the 125 watts HBO was using to transmit its signal, Captain Midnight took control. In essence, Captain Midnight achieved the world’s first hijacking of a satellite.
What at the time seemed like a harmless prank and polite protest, suddenly turned very serious as the episode made national news and drew the ire of not only HBO executives but also the Federal Communications Commission.
MacDougall’s hijacking of the satellite had made him a wanted fugitive, but also a minor hero of sorts, especially to the throng of satellite dish owners throughout the country. A group of citizens even formed the group, “Captain Midnight Coalition,” which helped raise money for MacDougall’s legal defense. His escapades were even parodied in the nationally-syndicated comic strip “Bloom County.”
After the FCC finally tracked down the origins of the Captain Midnight broadcast, MacDougall gave in to authorities. After his arraignment, MacDougall was interviewed by a myriad of news organizations and was invited to appear on numerous national broadcasts, but he declined all offers until after his sentencing. By that time, publicity and interest had waned in Captain Midnight, exactly what HBO and the FCC had hoped.
After a plea bargain, MacDougall received a $5,000 fine and one year of probation, a far cry from the possible $100,000 fine and one year of prison to which he could have been sentenced.
In 1987, a satellite hijacker carried on where Captain Midnight left off, this time hacking into a WGN news program and later on a PBS broadcast taking place on WTTW. In this interruption, the hacker donned a Max Headroom mask and would be slapped on the buttocks. Unlike Captain Midnight, the Max Headroom hijacker was never discovered.
MacDougall’s original goal had been to shine a light on “uncontrolled monopolies wrecking the free enterprise system” and that the government should involve itself in reversing the trend. The government did step in, not to curb programming monopolies but to pass laws making for harsher penalties to people jamming satellite signals. That year, the United States Congress passed the Electronics Communications Privacy Act, which made satellite hijacking a felony. In addition, the jamming incident helped spur the development of the Automatic Transmitter Identification System which allows satellite operators to identify unauthorized uplink transmissions.
When it was all said and done, Captain Midnight’s goal of curbing broadcast monopolies ultimately backfired, leading to more restrictions and more state involvement.