Television viewers in Great Falls, Montana, were somewhat perturbed earlier this week to find a daytime chat show interrupted by a message warning them that “the bodies of the dead are rising from the dead and attacking the living”. Fortunately (or unfortunately, if you’ve always wanted a Shaun of the Dead-style excuse for a lock-in down the pub) it was only a hoax, perpetrated by as-yet unknown hackers.
The station, KRTV, is an affiliate of CBS, and at the time was broadcasting an episode of The Steve Wilkos Show. At the crucial moment — just as “teen cheaters take lie detectors” (by which they presumably mean take a test, not literally seize the machinery itself) — the show’s audio was drowned out by the loud pulsing noises of the station’s emergency alert system, followed by a voice declaring the zombie apocalypse was imminent. A scrolling blue bar at the top of the screen listed “counties/areas” surrounding the city that was affected.
The voice continued: “Follow the messages onscreen that will be updated as information becomes available. Do not attempt to approach or apprehend these bodies as they are considered extremely dangerous.” Reuters quotes local police as saying that nobody appeared to be taken in by the hoax, although several viewers did make “humourous” calls to ask what guns would be effective against the undead hordes.
Engineers from KRTV’s parent company, Cordillera Communications, are still investigating exactly how their broadcast signal was able to be hijacked so easily. Its vice president, Steve Saunders, has also said that attempts were made to take over emergency alert systems at other stations in the area on the same day. The system is in place for the president to be able to address the nation in times of serious emergency, such as a nuclear war or natural disaster, so it’s no surprise that the Federal Communications Commission and FBI are both looking into the hack as well.
These kinds of broadcast signal intrusions are surprisingly common. One of the most famous is the 22 November 1987 takeover of two channels in Chicago by someone wearing a Max Headroom mask (who was, for those too young to remember, a faux-CGI TV host back then — in Back to the Future II, Ronald Reagan is depicted in a Max Headroom-ish manner in the diner Marty visits in 2015). Whoever it was appeared on screen for around 90 seconds, muttering smatterings of gibberish with the occasional remark audible through the audio distortion (“Catch the wave! They’re coming to get me!”). It ended with them bending over while an unknown woman spanked them with a flyswatter. Nobody knows for sure who was behind it to this day, whether it was a situationist art-prankster or just a couple of bored guys with time on their hands.
In the UK, someone took over Southern Television (a regional ITV broadcaster) on 26 November 1977, broadcasting audio over the evening news from a “galactic overlord” who warned humanity they had “but a short time to live together in peace”. It’s even been used as a military tactic — Israel swamped the signals coming from the Palestinian TV channel Al Manar TV to broadcast anti-Hamas propaganda. And Polish academics took over a TV broadcast on 14 September 1984 using a ZX Spectrum, telling their fellow citizens to boycott the corrupt national elections.
While the switch from analogue to digital transmissions has made it harder to hijack TV stations these days, it still happens, as the residents of Great Falls are now very much aware. We should just pray that, when the real zombie apocalypse arrives, people don’t treat the real emergency broadcast as just another hoax.