Ten Years Ago, PBS Alone Kept a Cool Head About Y2K

From the blog of Bob Cringley:

In early 1999 someone at PBS came up with the bright idea that I do a TV special about Y2K to run that October, setting audience expectations about what was to come. Going into that project I remember the producers expected it to be about all the stuff that was likely to go wrong. After all, I had written eight years before that we were in peril. But when I jumped into the research in 1999 I found that Y2K remediation, as it was called, seemed to be going well. I also found that systems weren’t as inter-connected or dependent as many of us had thought — that the world simply wasn’t as much at risk as we feared. I had to fight for this position, but ultimately that was the more conservative story we told two months before the actual event. And we were right.

PBS, to its credit, was the only U. S. television network with the guts to do such a show in primetime or anytime. We took a position — a controversial one it turned out — and justified it with research. Other networks preferred to play the doom card over and over again.

When “Y2K: The Winter of Our Disconnect?” aired that October (pre-Y2K), it produced the greatest e-mail response of any show I ever made — almost 3,000 messages in the first week. Most of those messages were negative, some extremely so. Many viewers saw me as irresponsible. They claimed that my irresponsible actions would lead to the deaths of hundreds — perhaps thousands — of PBS viewers, lulled into inaction by my false reassurances. Some viewers said I deserved to die for making the show. A few suggested they would kill me themselves.

Full article here, mp3 of NPR story here, original Y2K documentary here. It’s an entertaining story, but also a somber reminder of the mass media’s power to drag us into a baseless hysteria.