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:
VTILT URKTC VFCFI
VTILO VTOIL ZZTT
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?
Illustration by Slug Signorino
The wheels of the Straight Dope grind slow, friends, 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 sordid story:
At my request, Mark Stevens supplied a videotape copy of the message, which appeared in an episode entitled “The Man Who Cried Wife.” Sure enough, during an explosion, we noticed an odd flicker. Reviewing the tape in slo- mo, we found the message described above. It consisted of white letters on a black background, and lasted 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 sent them another one, which they reviewed. Hmm, they said.
Meanwhile, the Straight Dope production department endeavored to decode the message — in vain. The problem was the enigmatic ZZTT. No four-letter English word, so far as we could tell, consisted 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 fiendish plot, 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 enthusiasm. It soon became apparent that the message had not appeared in any city outside the nation’s capital. Jeepers, we thought, spies!
Then we checked with a reader in D.C. and made a devastating discovery: the message hadn’t appeared in Washington either. In fact, it was now clear, it hadn’t appeared anywhere except on Mark S.’s tape. Was it a visitation by aliens? Or, worse, was Mark putting his Unca Cecil on? He assured us he would rather be boiled in oil and die horribly. (Actually, he did not use quite those words, but the thought ran through our mind.)
Enlightenment came from Jack Blessing, the actor who played MacGillicuddy on Moonlighting and, as befits a pillar of the entertainment industry, a devout reader of the Straight Dope. In addition to confirming that there was no message, Jack noticed something else: a few minutes after the alleged message, there was a commercial for “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 four lines of scrambled letters. Three of the lines constituted the message on Mark Stevens’s tape.
We called Mark. By and by we established that (1) when he first viewed the show, he noticed nothing unusual; (2) he recorded the show as he watched, blipping out the commercials; (3) a friend first saw the message during a later viewing of the tape. Clearly the message was nothing more than a bizarre technical glitch.
I was, needless to say, inconsolable. I thought sure there was a Pulitzer in it for me, to say nothing of the thanks of a grateful nation. Now it appears the Republic was safe all along. Bummer! Then again, what if those creeps at Project Literacy … but I refuse to even consider the thought.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.