The Chicago TV Takeover of 1987

Posted by Mitchell - February 12, 2007 (entry 522)

There's a Polish saying: "If you steal a loaf of bread, they call you a thief. But if you steal an entire kingdom, they call you a prince."

On November 22, 1987, someone hijacked the signal of Chicago TV stations WTTW (which CMA has a mild passing interest in) and WGN TV (ditto) for about two minutes combined. That was long enough to broadcast, well, you can see for yourself:

The website Damn Interesting has all the details. You know, if someone was smart enough to pull this off and not get caught, why not do something useful or informative or striking with the time you’re on the air?

We know how it happened -- the signal from the Sears Tower for each TV station basically got overwhelmed briefly by someone else’s signal. But despite investigations from the FCC and the FBI, who that someone else is or was remains unknown, as was the details of how they covered up their tracks. I can’t shake the suspicion that someday this Deep Throat might contact CMA and entrust us with some powerful secrets. But, considering the forthcoming digitization of TV (for better or worse), those secrets aren’t likely to be very powerful for very long.

What really gets me is the characterization of this whole event as the doing of a TV "pirate". Considering that the broadcast industry reaps about $70 billion annually in advertising sales with nary a thank you in return, and with a policy setup that was utterly corrupt and with little public involvement, the question beckons: Who’s the real pirate? (See the Polish quote at the top of this entry.)

I’m reminded also me of the Eyes Only TV takeovers in the TV show Dark Angel. There's a similar incident in the movie They Live, in which someone does declare an impromptu (albeit dorky) manifesto. And Dan Rather on CBS News had a report of the takeover.

By the way, the excellent Chicago radio show This is Hell on local radio station WNUR is currently in the middle of its annual fundraising drive. Please consider making a donation.

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