Back in 1986, an Ocala, Florida man named John R. MacDougall had a problem. He was in the satellite television business, working for Central Florida Teleport, a company that uplinks content to satellites. But in January of that year, HBO had started scrambling its signal and charging satellite owners an exorbitant $12.95 per month (that’s nearly $30 in current dollars) for access to such fine Home Box Office programs as Not Necessarily The News and 1st & Ten. That was slightly more than what cable subscribers were paying at the time. Clearly, this was an intolerable outrage. Like a Reagan-era Robin Hood, MacDougall decided to take action.
On April 27, 1986, after rightfully beaming Pee-wee’s Big Adventure to the now-defunct pay-per-view service People’s Choice, he took aim at the Galaxy 1 satellite and managed to jam HBO’s signal for three entire minutes, right during an after-hours broadcast of the well-received Sean Penn/Timothy Hutton thriller The Falcon And The Snowman. Viewers on the East Coast barely had time to become invested in the film when MacDougal’s all-caps message appeared over an image of color bars: “GOODEVENING HBO FROM CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT $12.95/MONTH ? NO WAY ! [SHOWTIME/MOVIE CHANNEL BEWARE!]” MacDougall’s mysterious pseudonym came from an extremely obscure 1979 movie called On The Air Live With Captain Midnight.
Early concerns that the broadcast interruption was an act of terrorism proved unfounded, but the incident quickly attracted the attention of the federal government nevertheless. The FBI launched its own investigation into the case, and it managed to find and arrest the perpetrator. Whether MacDougall had thought to cover his tracks at all is not clear. In the end, the erstwhile Captain Midnight had to pay a $5,000 fine and spent a year on probation but did not see jail time. His actions, extreme as they were, did not seem to have any long-term effect on HBO’s pricing policies.