Deep into the night during an HBO broadcast of The Falcon and the Snowman in April 1986, subscribers were startled to see the start of the action interrupted by a four-and-a-half-minute transmission from a certain “Captain Midnight.” Over a test pattern, the message from Captain Midnight ran as follows:
FROM CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT
NO WAY !
[SHOWTIME/MOVIE CHANNEL BEWARE!]
Captain Midnight turned out to be a John MacDougall, an engineer at a satellite transmission facility in Ocala, Florida. MacDougall’s hacker attack was motivated by frustration at HBO, who he felt was overcharging satellite customers and hurting his satellite dish business. MacDougall was sentenced to one year’s probation and a $5,000 fine.
MacDougall’s annoyance had to do with a change in HBO’s decision to deny free access to their signals, as had been the case earlier:
Back in the early-80s, satellite dish owners were responsible for owning and servicing their own equipment but had access to any satellite broadcasted programming including that of cable providers. In the mid-80s, cable channels began scrambling their programming and charging fees to home satellite dish owners who accessed the signals requiring many satellite dish owners were forced to purchase expensive descrambling equipment in addition to paying monthly or annual subscription fees to cable programming providers. Satellite. When HBO scrambled its signal, it offered subscriptions to home dish owners for $12.95 per month, which was either equal to or slightly higher than what cable subscribers paid. Dish owners were not happy and it triggered a national movement among dish owners to more strongly regulate the cable industry and force them to stop anti-competitive pricing.
On April 27, 1986, MacDougall was working at Central Florida Teleport, overseeing the uplink of the movie Pee-wee’s Big Adventure for the pay-per-view network People’s Choice (now defunct). At the end of his shift, he aimed it at the location of the satellite that carried HBO. As a protest against the introduction of those high fees and scrambling equipment, he transmitted his signal, which briefly overrode HBO’s own signal.
Finding out the identity of Captain Midnight was no easy task. The FCC reasonably started with the premise that the perpetrator must have had access to a large dish with a powerful transmitter. The signature of the color bar test pattern further narrowed down their search. The investigation received a big boost when a witness reported hearing a conversation on a pay phone in which the caller kept referring to himself as “Captain Midnight.” The search took several months.
via Museum of Hoaxes
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
Public park ‘sound sculpture’ hacked with porno sounds
In the Realm of the Hackers