Man who hijacked HBO’s satellite signal 30 years ago would face far different fate today

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Protest message posted by "Captain Midnight."

On April 27, 1986, a Florida man with workplace access to a satellite transmission dish – and a financial beef with HBO -- pulled off the kind of audacious stunt that were it to happen today would likely land him in prison for a long, long time.

From a 2011 Buzzblog post:

John MacDougall, then 25, was the lonely pamphleteer of lore, only instead of paper and ink he was armed with a 30-foot transmission dish, an electronic keyboard, and a burning objection to HBO's decision in 1986 to begin scrambling its satellite signal and charging viewers $12.95 a month.

That move and price had offended MacDougall's sense of fair play -- and all but halted the sales being generated by his fledgling satellite dish business in Ocala, Fla. So at 12:32 a.m. on Sunday, April 27, he transformed himself into Captain Midnight by commandeering HBO's satellite transmission signal - interrupting a showing of The Falcon and the Snowman -- and putting in its place the above protest message that aired for four-and-a-half minutes.

Even back then this intrusion into satellite communications alarmed U.S. authorities who launched a massive investigation that eventually led to MacDugall’s arrest, trial and conviction.

042716 blog captain midnight john macdougall

John (Captain Midnight) MacDougall, 2010

Miraculously for him, he skated with probation and a $5,000 fine.

[For sale: The nuclear bunker of your dreams.]

Five years ago I asked MacDougall if he thought he would have gotten off so easily in our post-9/11 world:

"Probably not. But if I can be a little braggadocios here, I think if I had done it today I would have been a helluva lot smarter and not gotten caught. There are two sides to that coin: Yes, if I had gotten caught I probably would have been punished more severely, but the chances of getting caught would have been significantly less."

That strikes me as the kind of thinking that might lead a man to commandeer a satellite … and straight into a prison cell.

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