Captain Midnight: 'No regrets' about jamming HBO back in '86

25 years after audacious protest, John MacDougall says he was naive, misunderstood

Captain Midnight

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.

The stunt touched off a nationwide manhunt by law enforcement to unmask Captain Midnight and a media circus that has MacDougall's head spinning to this day. He would be caught, plead guilty to a misdemeanor, and receive a wrist slap of probation and a $5,000 fine.

(2011's 25 Geekiest 25th Anniversaries)

Today, on the 25th anniversary of the caper that earned him infamy, MacDougall says he has 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. 

"I do not regret trying to get the message out to corporate America about unfair pricing and restrictive trade practices," he told me in a phone interview. "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," he says. "It's unfortunate that it took jamming their signal to get the message across."

How it all went down

By far the most comprehensive contemporary account MacDougall's escapade - headlined "The Story of Captain Midnight" - can be found sprinkled across the Internet on myriad forums. The authorship of this article is a bit of a mystery - none of the copies I saw carries a byline -- but MacDougall says he granted only one interview at the time and that was to an Ocala newspaper reporter who was writing a freelance article for Satellite Orbit magazine, which is mentioned in the piece. (If anyone knows for certain, please drop me a note.)

Captian Midnightdy

We pick up that story with MacDougall filling his Saturday late-night shift as a part-time operations engineer at Central Florida Teleport:

As the end of his shift drew near, MacDougall was absently watching Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, a movie he was uplinking for the now-defunct pay-per-view service, People's Choice. But something else was on his mind. When the film ended, MacDougall went through the normal routine.

Before logging off, he set up color bars and punched buttons to swing the giant 30-foot dish he'd been using to its resting place. That was necessary because the soil beneath the dish's cement pad is sandy clay. Rainfall could throw it off-kilter, but by setting it in a certain way the rain runs harmlessly into a gutter. At its resting place, the dish points directly at the satellite Galaxy 1. Transponder 23 on that satellite carries the eastern feed of HBO.

"That's when I decided to do it," says MacDougall. "It wasn't like I thought about it, 'Yes. No. Yes. No.' It was just, 'Yeah!'" He scrolled up a character generator, an electronic keyboard that puts letters across the TV screen, and tried to think what to write. "I didn't know exactly how to start it," he says. "I wrote 'Good evening." I wanted to be polite. I didn't want it to be vulgar or call them names or anything. That's not my style."

Almost as quickly as he posted the message, MacDougall got cold feet, abandoned his illicit control of the satellite, and began to hope against hope that what he had done would go unnoticed outside of HBO. That didn't happen, as the story soon exploded into the media realm ... and beyond. More from "The Story of Captain Midnight:"

On April 28, HBO chairman Michael J. Fuchs wrote to the FCC saying that the company had received calls threatening to move Galaxy 1 into a new orbit. He urged the Commission to "use all its investigative resources" to capture Captain Midnight.

FCC investigator (George) Dillon says the implications of the incident involved a threat to the national security. "There's lots of highly sensitive data involved. If you have a bandit, it could disrupt the business of the United States -- things like defense communications, medical information, telephone communications, and teleconferences.

An article written later that year for Time magazine explains how Captain Midnight was caught:

He was nabbed by a combination of space-age sleuthing and old-fashioned legwork. Executives at HBO, the Time Inc.-owned cable service, say that within 24 hours after the incident they were confident there was enough information to eventually locate the culprit. But it was up to the FCC to track him down through an elaborate process of elimination.

To override HBO's signal, it was determined, the intruder must have had access to a large dish -- at least seven meters in diameter -- equipped with a strong transmitter. That limited the number of possible sources to about 580 commercial "uplink" facilities. Next, after studying tapes of Captain Midnight's message, investigators pinpointed the make and model of the character generator used; only about 100 sites had that piece of equipment.

The list was gradually narrowed further. Many facilities, for instance, were relaying legitimate telephone or video signals on the night of the attack. HBO technicians provided one helpful clue. Exactly one week before Captain Midnight's attack, the service's programming had been interrupted briefly with a pattern of color bars. It was apparently the work of the same person; thus it seemed the culprit had access to the facility at the same time on both nights.

His life would never be the same

Once he was busted, all hell broke loose for MacDougall, who still lives in Ocala, where he does consulting work and cares for his elderly parents.

"The media attention really freaked me out," he told me. "For three or four days I couldn't stay at my home; there were news crews parked across the street. For weeks I was getting bombarded on a daily basis with phone calls and people stopping by. I had to close my office because I couldn't get any work done.

"I couldn't sell anything, either. Everyone wanted to talk about Captain Midnight but no one wanted to pay to buy anything."

I asked him if thought that he would have gotten off so easy had he done what he did today.

"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."

MacDougall says his notoriety has followed him over the years - people bring it up - but that he has never reveled in the attention or profited from it.

"Being Captain Midnight was just one day in my life 25 years ago. I can't do anything about it now - but it's not how I lived my life.

"To be blunt about it, I never thought anybody would give a damn except HBO."

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