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The Straight Dope


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I taped a Moonlighting episode that ABC broadcast in DC on either September 23 or 30 of 1986. When I finally got around to watching it, I noticed that a frame of letters had been inserted into the footage of an explosion. These are the letters:




What does it mean? Is the Moonlighting production company responsible for this or was it done later? What's the dope on this subliminal message? --Mark Stevens, Alexandria, Virginia

The wheels of the Straight Dope grind slow, Mark, but they grind exceeding fine. By dint of herculean investigative effort, punctuated by frequent car chases, gunfire, and snappy asides to the camera (I like to get in the mood for these things), I have solved the mystery of the secret message. Here's the whole amazing story:

At my request, Mark Stevens supplied a videotape copy of the message, which appeared in an episode entitled "The Man Who Cried Wife." At one point Bruce Willis, Cybill Shepherd, and a third guy are in a car chasing down a mountain road after another car. Suddenly there's an explosion ahead. The screen goes white--but then we notice a suspicious flicker. Reviewing the tape in slo-mo, we find the message described above. It consists of white letters on a black background, fills the bottom half of the screen, and lasts for just a single frame.

Cecil was initially sure this was going to turn out to be some publicity stunt dreamed up by the ratings-hungry moguls at ABC. The ABC people, however, claimed they had no idea what was going on. We sent them a copy of the cassette. They said it was damaged in transit--a likely story, we thought. We sent them another one, which they reviewed. Hmm, they said. They retired for consultations.

Meanwhile, the Straight Dope production department endeavored to decode the message--in vain. The trouble was the enigmatic ZZTT. No four-letter English word consists of consecutive pairs of double letters. We refused to even consider the possibility that the message was written in Maltese.

After a considerable passage of time, and no doubt following many frantic conversations with highly paid crisis-management consultants, ABC declared as follows: 'twarn't us. The message, they said, had been inserted into the show after it had been transmitted by the network.

Convinced that ABC was trying to cover up some diabolical conspiracy, I asked the Teeming Millions to check their own copies of the episode, figuring that if the same message had appeared in several cities I would have enough evidence to petition the Justice Department to appoint a special prosecutor. The Teeming Millions responded with their usual enthusiasm. (Among them was Jack Blessing, who plays MacGillicuddy on Moonlighting.) Upon reviewing the evidence, we established two facts: first, the message appeared only on reader Stevens's tape; second, a few minutes after the scene with the alleged message, there was a commercial for an outfit called Project Literacy U.S. While an offscreen voice intoned, "Imagine that if you can't read this, you won't make a good living . . . ," there appeared on the screen, in white letters against a black background, four lines of scrambled letters. Three of the lines constituted the "secret message" on Stevens's tape.

Huddling with Stevens, I established that (1) when he viewed the show initially, he noticed nothing out of the ordinary; (2) he recorded the show as he watched, blipping out the commercials; (3) a friend first saw the message during a subsequent viewing of the tape. It appears, therefore, that the message, despite its apparent authenticity, was merely the result of an extraordinary technical glitch. (To answer the obvious question, Stevens says he would sooner die than purposely kid his Unca Cecil.) I am miffed, of course, that the message turned out to be an accident, because I felt there was a sure Pulitzer in it for me. On the other hand, I am relieved to know that the Republic is not in immediate peril--unless, of course, those snakes at Project Literacy . . . but I refuse to even consider the thought.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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