A Florida man who operates a business selling backyard satellite dishes pleaded guilty Tuesday to charges that he is the video pirate dubbed "Captain Midnight," who illegally interfered with satellite transmissions of a Home Box Office movie last April, the Federal Communications Commission said.
John R. MacDougall, who owns MacDougall Electronics, a dealership that sells home satellite dishes in Ocala, Fla., entered his plea in federal court in Jacksonville. MacDougall, who surrendered to authorities during an FCC investigation, was charged with illegally operating a satellite transmitter to intentionally cause interference to HBO cable television programming.
Under an agreement reached with U.S. Atty. Robert Merkle, MacDougall will be subject to a $5,000 fine, a year's probation and suspension of his amateur radio license for one year. MacDougall, who will be sentenced at a later date, had faced a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a $100,000 fine.
National Security Implications
"We think it is very, very important," Richard M. Smith, chief of the FCC's field operations bureau, said of MacDougall's apprehension. He added that "interference to satellites is a very serious matter" because, in addition to commercial broadcast signals, their transmissions are used for vital communications involving national security.
The search for MacDougall began after a surprise video signal overrode HBO transmissions from its Long Island, N.Y., facility to the Galaxy One satellite around midnight April 27. The interference prevented reception of the start of the movie "The Falcon and the Snowman" by cable TV and other viewers in the Eastern two-thirds of the nation.
For 4 1/2 minutes, viewers saw only a row of vertical color bars on which a message appeared that said: "Good Evening HBO from Captain Midnight, $12.95/month? No Way! Showtime/Movie Channel Beware!"
The message was an apparent protest to HBO's practice of scrambling its signals so that its programs could be seen only by those who had paid to watch them. This practice has angered many people who have paid hefty prices for backyard satellite dishes to pick up such programs, only to find that they still do not have access to them. At the time of Captain Midnight's strike, HBO offered descrambling equipment for $12.95 a month.
Pleased With Outcome
"We're happy and grateful that the FCC pursued this thing so diligently," HBO spokesman David Pritchard said. "It was not an easy thing to investigate, and it required an awful lot of persistence and hard work by the FCC's field staff."
The commission said that MacDougall worked on an occasional basis as a satellite signal operator at Central Florida Teleport in Ocala, a facility that sends signals to satellites for a variety of customers. He was on duty there the night of April 27, as well as on April 20, when another HBO program was interrupted for four minutes for a picture of the color bar with no message.
Tracking "Captain Midnight" from the video transmission is a highly technical task that involves laboratory analysis of the video signals. FCC investigators concluded that, because of the power needed to override the HBO transmission, the illegal signal had to come from a professional facility with powerful antennas.
Of the nation's 2,000 licensed transmitters, investigators narrowed the list of possibilities to 580 facilities with sufficiently large antennas. By studying tapes of the illegal video signal, the FCC's field staff pinpointed the specific make and model of equipment used to generate the video message. That enabled them to pare the list even further, to only 12.
After visiting these facilities, investigators had three prime suspects, including MacDougall. When several of MacDougall's friends were subpoenaed, and he was notified he was a suspect, MacDougall admitted his guilt to authorities.