Last week, television viewers around California had their regularly scheduled programming interrupted by what appeared to be an emergency broadcast message.  Where viewers once saw their favorite shows on channels like HGTV, they instead saw a black screen, with a red bar and the words “EMERGENCY ALERT,” accompanied by a distorted voice warning residents of the impending end of the world.

When was this apocalypse supposed to take place?  On Saturday… so it seems we all dodged a bullet on this one.

Television news stations around the country picked up the story, running shots from inside people’s homes recorded by cell phones, as the illegal interruption relayed its warning about the end of days, complete with remarks like, “Realize this, extremely violent times will come.”

Thanks to heightening tensions with nuclear-armed nations like North Korea, one could hardly blame your average viewer for feeling a bit uneasy as they watched and listened.  That paranoia about the state of our world is only bolstered by a historically destructive hurricane season, deadly earthquakes in Mexico, and a political upheaval in the United States.  Surely, these events can’t all be a coincidence, the leftover remnants of our lizard brains can argue, they must be signs that we’re living in the end of days.

The thing is, as a species, we’ve pretty much always been sure that we were living in the end of days.  Every life changing new invention, shift in power, new war, or just about any other kind of development has been met with its own fair share of apocalyptic prophecies.  In fact, interrupting TV broadcasts to initiate fear in the public regarding these predictions isn’t even a new thing.  Ever since TV has been around, hackers, pranksters, and ne’er-do-wells have been hijacking transmissions for just this sort of publicity.

Remember Steve Wilkos?  He was Jerry Springer’s bald headed bouncer that was tasked with occasionally trying to keep the talk show host’s guests from murdering one another with chairs, which eventually led to him getting a show of his own.  A few years ago, hackers infiltrated the emergency broadcast system for their local cable provider, and used it to interrupt the Steve Wilkos show with a warning about zombies rising from their graves.  You can watch the interruption here:

Sometimes, these warnings don’t try to pretend to be messages from authorities, but rather alien races that want to help guide us earthlings away from our own imminent destruction.  In 1977, a BBC news broadcast in the UK was interrupted by none other than Vrillon of the Ashtar Intergalactic Command,  with a series of stark warnings to deliver to the UK populous about nuclear weapons and the human propensity for war.  This interruption, which went on for several minutes, mandated that the human race remove “their weapons of evil,” warning that we had but a “short time to learn to live in peace.”

Of course, not all such interruptions come with warnings of doom.  Sometimes, they’re just creepy (or stupid) depending on your perspective.  On November 22nd, 1987, a PBS broadcast of “Dr. Who” was interrupted by a man in a mask intended to look like the fictional artificial intelligence “Max Headroom,” who had appeared in his own show in 1984.

Like many other such broadcast hijackings, the culprit of the weird Max Headroom interruption was never found, despite announcing in the footage (through a distorted voice) that he “just made a giant masterpiece for all the greatest world newspaper nerds.”  His video interruption doesn’t include any doom or gloom, but does end with what appears to be a woman spanking him with a fly swatter…

As television became increasingly a wired, rather than broadcast medium, it also became more difficult for would-be broadcast hijackers to interrupt the shows that we watch without getting caught, so for some time, these interruptions became less common.  However, last week’s “emergency broadcast message” in California serves as a good reminder that, as we develop better digital security, there’s always someone out there working on a way to get past it.  If California’s culprit isn’t caught, it means there’s now a feasible way to start the game all over again despite America’s transition to a digital cable infrastructure – and we’ll likely see plenty more of these interruptions in the years to come.

That might not always be a bad thing.  Sometimes, these hijacks aren’t about the impending apocalypse, nuclear proliferation aliens, or bad 80’s TV shows.  Every once in a while, a Robin Hood emerges from the digital darkness… like Captain Midnight, who interrupted an HBO broadcast in the middle of the night in 1986 to post a single cryptic message about how expensive their service was becoming:

May our generation of hackers use their newfound powers for good, in the vain of our intrepid Captain Midnight.  Showtime/Movie Channel beware indeed.


Image courtesy of YouTube