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Analysts call Y2K: The Movie a millennial disaster

November 22, 1999
Web posted at: 10:40 a.m. EST (1540 GMT)

by Mathew Schwartz graphic

(IDG) -- Alarms blare. The Washington National Guard swarms the streets of Seattle, evacuating everyone from their homes.

Could it be the government's new strategy against Microsoft Corp.? Guess again. It's a scene from NBC's two-hour Y2K: The Movie, which aired Sunday night.

In the film, the White House calls on uber-scientist Nick Cromwell (played by Thirtysomething's Ken Olin) to save the world. Sorry, make that the U.S. (The rest of the world -- notably Sweden -- isn't so lucky.) Nick's the guy. He's got MIT credentials and the world's foremost knowledge of both advanced computing and nuclear power. But most of all, he's a family man. (Hold that thought.)

There are some, um, inaccuracies in the film. But there's also lots of action caused by nasty year 2000 bugs. Among other things, the Eastern Seaboard loses power and a Swedish nuclear reactor melts down at 2 a.m., killing the entire staff (and presumably not doing the rest of Sweden much good). That last point is important because the exact same kind of reactor is in use in Seattle.

Nick's family lives in Seattle, so he must supersonic-jet his way back to the West Coast and pull a few MacGyver-like pyrotechnics out of his hat to save the day. Oh, did I mention he gets help from his dad, who was the NASA genius who helped bring a crippled Apollo 13 back to earth?

Analysts offer reality check on Y2K movie
We asked Y2K experts Ian Hayes at Clarity Consulting and Leon Kappelman at the University of Texas, Denton, to reality-check some of the events in the movie:

White House has a Y2K situation room.

It already exists. Scheduled to operate at end of December and early January. Roughly $40 million invested so far, no real-time updates, however.

Eastern Seaboard loses power when one Philadelphia power plant fails.

No. They're not sure one plant would do it.

Some emergency medical services systems fail.

Possibly. To date, 50% of 911 systems haven't reported Y2K compliancy. Manual backups exist but are slower.

Fetal monitor in hospital produces erroneous readings.

Possible. "Dates show up in really weird ways. ... There was one radiation machine they had to take off the market because it was calculating incorrect doses," said Hayes.

Woman dies during surgery when backup generators fail.

Possible. A similar event, not Y2K-related, occurred when Hurricane Floyd swept through Rhode Island.

Navy F-18 fighter jet falls from the sky.

No. Very few systems on airplanes are date-dependent.

U.S. banks only dispense $20 per customer on Dec. 31, 1999.

Possible. The U.S. has printed an additional $70 billion in cash for Y2K, -- all on top of the usual $200 billion-plus reserve. Still, if people get scared, there could be a run on banks.

Unfortunately, while the film does cough up some relatively simple explanations of the Y2K date problem, it entirely misses the big picture.

"The shame is that it plays to the end points -- it's the end of the world and there's a silver bullet, which really trivializes the whole problem," said Y2K expert Leon Kappelman, an associate professor of business components information systems at the University of Texas, Denton.

As Ian Hayes, Y2K expert and principal at Clarity Consulting Inc. in South Hamilton, Mass., noted about the film: "I love the idea that there's one guy who can save the world. Oh good -- he's going to go and replace every single embedded chip out there."

At least two other Y2K films were scheduled for theatrical or broadcast release before year's end, but they were canceled. One, for Fox Television Network, also involved nuclear disaster, according to Kappelman, who consulted for the film. The other was to star actor Chris O'Donnell (Robin in Batman Forever) as a computer programmer who discovers a Y2K bug that exposes New York to a terrorist attack. But Warner Brothers pulled the plug on it in July. The Boston Globe quoted the film's producer, Bing Howenstein, as saying he believed the studio had anticipated that audiences would have trouble distinguishing fiction from reality.

Two other Y2K movies did get made. Entrapment, starring Sean Connery as a thief trying to steal billions of dollars via computer during the Y2K rollover, only lasted a few weeks in theaters after it was released April 30. The other, Y2K, stars Louis Gossett Jr. (Iron Eagle) as a soldier who must find and defuse a nuclear missile that is hidden in the jungle and set to go off on New Year's Day. It was released straight to video -- in Japan.

Maybe Y2K: The Movie should have joined it there. The biggest problem isn't its overblown picture of Y2K disasters. It might make some people nervous, but few will crowd the streets in fear based on a TV movie. NBC's biggest disservice was reinforcing the myth that Y2K is going to go away anytime soon.

But as Computerworld reported last week, the movie did prompt some local officials to coordinate with their local TV news teams to follow the movie with calmer discussions of the problem and its likely effects. So if there's one potential saving grace for the film, it's that it might promote public dialogue on Y2K.

For example, fearing potential public concerns because of the power outages depicted in the movie, Edison Electric Institute in Washington has urged NBC affiliate stations to help reduce public fears by reporting about local Y2K preparations. The trade association, which represents U.S. shareholder-owned electric utilities that generate and deliver three-fourths of the nation's electricity, sent letters to the nation's 100 largest NBC affiliates prior to the airing of the movie.

NRC says power plants are Y2K-ready
November 19, 1999
Report: 97 percent of critical federal systems Y2K-compliant
September 16, 1999
Senate vote nears on revamped N-waste bill
September 16, 1999
Nuclear power plants stand in Floyd's path
September 14, 1999
Y2K control center unveiled
November 15, 1999

Analysts offer reality check on Y2K movie
Analysts offer plot consult
It's only a movie, but Y2K raises real concerns
U.S. warns of Y2K frauds
(PC World Online)
Airlines make Y2K progress
Final cost of Y2K repairs may top $114 billion
Lawyer promotes Y2K-cost-recovery tactic
Year 2000 World
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Y2K: The Movie page at
The Boston Globe
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