1983: Hundreds of Hoosier households hijack HBO signal for free

Posted at 5:36 AM, Jun 29, 2023
and last updated 2023-08-30 17:25:24-04

INDIANAPOLIS — With a few parts and a little bit of know-how, hundreds of Hoosier households successfully obtained HBO (Home Box Office) programming for free 40 years ago.

It was all possible thanks to something called a multi-point distribution system or MDS.

A company named TVQ was the MDS provider responsible for delivering HBO’s signal in central Indiana in 1983. It did so through a microwave transmitter located on the top of the Indiana National Bank Tower.

One problem with this setup is that this signal was not scrambled. Therefore, any home with the right equipment, and in range of the tower, could receive HBO for free.

It was something neither TVQ nor HBO were happy about. The companies went to great lengths to identify the so-called pirates and even deployed a truck with special monitoring equipment.

The truck would park within a few hundred feet of a suspected HBO pirate’s home and measure oscillations to determine which frequencies were being received.

The companies eventually filed a lawsuit against 3,000 suspected pirates in July 1983. It was a tactic used to scare most pirates into suspending the practice and pay up.

The courts eventually found that microwave TV signals were not the same as over-the-air broadcast signals. Therefore, anyone intercepting a microwave signal without paying for it was breaking the law.

HBO began scrambling its content in 1986.