Flashback: Hacker interrupts HBO's film in 1986

Long before "The Guardians of Peace" ever claimed to have hacked into Sony Pictures and threatened the release of "The Interview," there was a hacker by the name of "Captain Midnight."

In the video above you can see Susan Spencer anchoring the CBS Evening News. Spencer sets up the story of an "HBO Hacker" before tossing to the full report by CBS News correspondent Joan Snyder. Snyder's story that night would recap the moment HBO's showing of "The Falcon and the Snowman" was suddenly interrupted.

It happened in the early morning of Sunday April 27, 1986. The largest cable service at the time, HBO, had its signal commandeered -- it had suffered a break-in.

In the middle of the film, viewers saw the message below appear over color bars.

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A hacker's message interrupts an HBO film in 1986 in protest of the company's fees CBS News

Snyder reported the "pirate satellite signal took over to convey a protest against the company's fees."

It lasted a few minutes and warned two other pay TV outlets: Showtime and The Movie Channel.

As Snyder explained, the interference with HBO's satellite transmission was evidently a challenge to the company's recently instituted system of scrambling its signals to stop what it considered sky-way robbery: the free reception of its programs by satellite dish owners.

Through some vintage 1986 TV graphics, Snyder explained how "Captain Midnight" may have been able to pull off the hack.

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A 1986 CBS News graphic explaining how HBO's signal may have been interrupted CBS News

"The cable company beams the signal to a satellite which rebroadcasts it to earth," reported Snyder. "A pirate station, in this case, perhaps converted from a backyard dish, could have beamed its own signal to the satellite, disrupting HBO."

At the time, the cable industry was worried that the event may have been only a preview.

"If they can do it with HBO, they can off course do it with the major networks which all use satellite transmission now," said Jay Ross, a cable industry lawyer. "And far scarier than that, they can do it with NASA, they can do it with anything."

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People who owned satellite dishes represented by an organization called Space, converged on Washington a month earlier to urge Congress to protect their access to the airwaves.

Robert Behar of Space argued it was unfair for satellite dish owners, who paid for their own equipment, to be charged monthly to access cable company content that was available to viewers who didn't have the burden of paying for satellite equipment.

"Is it reasonable for you to pay $12.95 and you invested like $2,500 to put on your own satellite TV antenna and the person next to you is paying $12.95 and he's got absolutely no investment in equipment," said Behar.

Even before the break-in the Federal Communications Commission had warned it would deal harshly with anyone attempting to interfere with TV programming.

Snyder ended her report with a statement that still holds true nearly 30 years later.

"But as the satellite expert said, something as brief as the HBO break-in is very hard to trace."

And that's the way it was on Sunday, April 27, 1986.


At the time of Snyder's report "Captain Midnight" had not been identified. The FBI and the FCC eventually tracked the uplink to a satellite company in Ocala, Florida. "Captain Midnight" turned out to be a satellite technician named John MacDougall. 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. As for his alias, MacDougall said he took it from a movie he had seen called "On Air Live with Captain Midnight."