Remembering “Captain Midnight”: The mid-80s video terrorist who hacked into HBO’s satellite signal

By on July 14, 2015

With all the recent and seemingly ongoing cyberspace issues of hacking, particularly computer hacking and theft of personal information, we were reminded of one of the first times we ever heard about “hacking,” back in April 1986, when someone calling themselves ‘Captain Midnight’ hacked into HBO’s scrambled satellite signal. The Great Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson gleefully set the scene, writing about its aftermath almost a month later in the San Francisco Examiner:

“The only good news out of Washington last week was the Saga of Captain Midnight — the mysterious Video Terrorist who became an instant legend by jamming a prime-time movie on the HBO channel and cutting in with his own 30-second commercial, in four colors, protesting the networks new policy of full-time scrambling and a whole new schedule of taxes and fees and mandatory high-tech deciphering machinery for millions of satellite dish owners.”

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At the time of his initial article — which was published later in the collection Generation of Swine: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist (Simon & Schuster, 1988) — Thompson wrote:

“Captain Midnight is still on the loose, despite the best efforts of the FBI, the FCC and a handful of spooks from places like Rotterdam and Lockheed and Mossad, the Israeli secret intelligence unit. People like Meese [U.S. Attorney General Edwin Messe, a powerful and influential figure inside the Reagan White House] and Casey [William J. Casey, Director of the C.I.A.] and Webster [William H. Webster, Director of the F.B.I.] have sent FCC officials off to Congress to draft a bill that would raise the penalty for satellite interference from a $10,000 fine/and or a year in jail to a $100,000 fine and/or 10 years in jail.

The problem with Captain Midnight is not so much what he actually did, but the fact that he was able to do it. The best brains in the SatCom business had told the HBO brass that it was not possible for any pirate to cut into the main movie signal — but nobody had ever thought about the possibility of some freak boring into the transponder with a massive 2,000-watt signal.

HBO was transmitting at 125 watts that night, and Captain Midnight’s odd signal was not taken seriously at first. It happened at 12:32 a.m. in New York and engineers on duty at the main HBO transmitter on Long Island at first tried to keep up with the unholy power surge generated by Captain Midnight’s huge transmitter — but when the illegal hit 2,000 watts the HBO boys backed off and called the FBI.”

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This all went down in mid-1980s, when the the original “Night Flight” TV show was originally being broadcast on the USA network, when the U.S. media companies that owned the pay (or premium) TV channels began scrambling their programming and charging fees to home satellite dish owners who accessed the same satellite signals that cable operators received.

Many satellite dish owners faced purchasing de-scrambling equipment at a cost of hundreds of dollars, in addition to paying monthly or annual subscription fees to cable programming providers. Programming costs for home dish owners were often higher than fees paid by cable subscribers, despite dish owners being responsible for acquiring and servicing their own equipment.

When HBO scrambled its signal in January 1986, 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. HBO advised viewers that purchasing a de-scrambler for $395 would allow them to continue watching their service. Satellite dish owners began protests over scrambling, saying that clear signals from cable channels would become difficult to receive.

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On April 20, 1986, one week before the jamming, electrical engineer and business owner John R. MacDougall — an electronics engineer & owner of MacDougall Electronics in Ocala, Florida, working at Central Florida Teleport (a company that uplinked services to satellites), transmitted a colorbar test pattern which was superimposed on HBO’s signal. This only lasted for a few seconds and HBO did not investigate the incident, as it had occurred during the overnight hours, and as a result, very few people had been watching HBO at the time.

A week later, however, on April 27, 1986, at 12:32 a.m. Eastern Time, MacDougall — who was frustrated at the network who was over charging satellite customers, and hurting his business — stepped things up a notch when he used the pseudonym Captain Midnight and jammed HBO’s satellite signal to broadcast a message protesting their rates for satellite dish owners.

That night, MacDougall was overseeing the uplink of the movie Pee-wee’s Big Adventure as part of the evening’s programming for the now-defunct pay-per-view network People’s Choice, which used Central Florida Teleport’s facilities. At the end of his shift, he swung the dish back into its storage position, which aimed it at the location of Galaxy 1, the satellite that carried HBO. Galaxy 1 carried HBO on Channel 23 at a rate of 125 watts with relay signals sent out at 6,385 MHz.

As a protest against the introduction of high fees and scrambling equipment, he transmitted a signal onto the satellite that for 4 and a half minutes overrode HBO’s telecast of the movie The Falcon and the Snowman, which had begun two minutes earlier. The text message that appeared on the screens of HBO subscribers across the eastern half of the country read:

GOODEVENING HBO
FROM CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT
$12.95/MONTH ?
NO WAY !
(SHOWTIME MOVIE CHANNEL BEWARE!])

There was a report on “ABC News,” starring Peter Jennings, about the incident. Jennings also mentions the 1980 comedy satire Used Cars, in which Kurt Russell — a car salesman — and his friends interrupt a football game being broacast on TV with a homemade commercial they’ve made for their car dealership (sadly, Youtube seems to have taken it down); things go badly, however, when the buxom female model they’re filming gets her dress ripped off accidentally on live TV, which ends up selling a lot of cars the next day because apparently the sight of a naked or nearly-naked model on live TV makes some people want to buy cars). They try it again, and this time Rudy and his pals interrupt a presidential address by Jimmy Carter, and they end up destroying some of the used cars in the process, and, well, more hilarity ensues.

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As a result of MacDougall’s hackery, Hughes Communications threatened to shut down HBO’s satellite signal, or alter the satellite’s course, with executives believing the hacker at the time was a domestic terrorist. HBO’s engineer tried to regain control by increasing the uplink transmission power from 125 to 2,000 watts. This was unsuccessful, and it was feared that a further power increase would damage the satellite.

HBO contacted the Federal Communications Commission and it was announced that the hijacker would face prosecution. The hijacking raised concerns over satellite-borne communications, that data transmitted by business and military users would become potential targets. In response to this satellite jamming incident, the ATIS (Automatic Transmitter Identification System) was developed, allowing satellite operators to quickly identify unauthorized uplink transmissions. (In 2009, HBO and Elmer Musser were awarded a Technology & Engineering Emmy Award for ATIS).

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The FBI was called in to investigate the incident. They determined which Teleport uplink site had the capability to override the HBO signal. That narrowed it down to two uplink sites. Then, they used the character generator graphics to determine which one. They then knew the operator who was on duty at that time. The FBI also learned an accountant had overheard MacDougall at a payphone and obtained a license plate number of a car owned by MacDougall.

Mother Jones Magazine, in a cover story published in October 1986, later determined that MacDougall could have potentially taken over the signals of three satellites. The first was by taking over the network feed of CBS had he positioned his satellite dish at the Telstar 301 satellite, operated by AT&T, turned at 6,065 MHz. The second was by taking over the foreign language feed of the Voice of America network by aiming his satellite dish at 72 degrees west longitude. The final theorized hijacking would be aiming his satellite dish at 100 degrees west longitude, above the Galapagos Islands, with a frequency setting of 293.375 MHz, thereby jamming the signal of United States Navy satellite Fleetsatcom 1.

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Oliver Long, the engineer in charge of the Kingsfield, Texas Field Office Bureau (FOB) of the FCC was the man responsible for apprehending Captain Midnight, who wanted HBO viewers to know that he wasn’t particularly happy about having to pay for HBO. The FCC launched a full-scale investigation into the incident and Long oversaw the entire process, which wasn’t easy because he had to determine who caused the trasmission of something that had already happened. It would have been different if he’d been able to observe the signal as it was happening, and so it presented a challenge to him to find out what happened. He backtracked and correlated the interference with equipment that would be capable of sending such a signal, isolating a particular type of character generator.

Then, he had to figure out who had that kind of generator and which earth station could have made the transmission, but before he could figure it out, John MacDougall — feeling the media pressure forced the Federal Communications Commission to act — MacDougall turned himself in to federal authorities. He was charged with operating a transmitter without a license. He pleaded guilty, paid a $5,000 fine, and was put on one year probation.

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Tracy Sebastion as “Captain Midnight” (1979 movie)

MacDougall told authorities he chose the name “Captain Midnight” from a movie he had recently seen, On the Air Live with Captain Midnight, a 1979 movie (filmed two years earlier), that starred Tracy Sebastion as Marvin Ziegler, a teenager with a mobile broadcast transmitter in his van that allowed him to take over the airwaves as a renegade disc jockey, nicknaming himself Captain Midnight. He runs his own pirate radio station and becomes an underground cult hit. The movie was directed by Beverly Sebastian and Ferd Sebastian, and longtime Los Angeles deejay Jim Ladd also co-starred in the film as a disc jockey. This Captain Midnight, by the way, was not associated with a popular Captain Midnight radio show of the 1940s.

In 2011, on the 25th anniversary of the caper that earned him infamy, MacDougall talked to Paul MacNamara of NetworkWorld’s Buzzblog, saying he had “no regrets about what he did or why he did it, although he does wish his motivations had been better understood and that he had better appreciated that he was playing with dynamite.”

Here’s more from that article:

“I do not regret trying to get the message out to corporate America about unfair pricing and restrictive trade practices… That was the impetus for doing what I did; that’s the reason I jammed HBO; that’s the reason I sent them a polite message. What I do regret is that I was young and fairly naïve in the ways of the media. I didn’t grasp the fact that no one understood my motives and that everyone would make assumptions. Had I known that up front I would have been much more fervent in explaining my motivations. I had no animus and I had no malice in my heart.”

MacDougall believes now as then that by scrambling the signal, which required a $500 decoder, and setting the monthly price at $12.95 — versus the $2 per subscriber it charged cable providers, who in turn charged landline subscribers only $8.95 – HBO was in essence strangling the nascent satellite TV business.

“History proved me correct, by the way, because just a few years after this, in 1989-90, I could purchase HBO through the satellite for as little as $5.95 a month, and that was a la carte, not bundled..It’s unfortunate that it took jamming their signal to get the message across.”

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Today, years later, MacDougall’s MacDougall Electronics, a satellite dish dealership placed in Ocala, Florida, is no longer operational and its headquarters seem to be abandoned.

On the evening of November 22, 1987, a television signal hijacking regular programming occurred in Chicago, Illinois. The intruder was successful in interrupting two broadcast television stations within the course of three hours, wearing a Max Headroom mask. We told you about that one here.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.