It's only a movie.

That's what the bank industry, from community bankers to national trade associations, is urging NBC-TV to tell viewers Sunday night during its much-hyped broadcast of the disaster film "Y2K: The Movie."

In the film, a computer glitch causes power outages, nuclear meltdowns and -- here's the real horror -- automated teller machine malfunctions when the clock strikes midnight on Jan. 1.

Fearing a potential run on cash machines and teller windows on Monday morning, bankers and trade group representatives are asking for airtime on local affiliate stations after the movie to reassure customers they are ready for 2000.

"I don't want to see two and a half years of hard work and considerable dollars unraveled by a two-hour television movie," said Mark G. Field, president and chairman of the Farmers Bank of Liberty (Ill.).

"I hope the naysayers and goofballs don't get people stirred up into a frenzy," said Steve Scurlock, executive vice president of the Independent Bankers Association of Texas.

Many bankers would rather the film didn't run at all. Mr. Field sent letters to his local affiliates, asking them not to show the movie.

Trade groups in Washington went straight to the top. The Independent Community Bankers of America sent a letter to Robert Wright, president and chief executive officer of NBC, urging him to pull the movie. And the American Bankers Association contacted the movie's producers to offer assistance in making the film more true to life, and to offer to make experts available should the network want to produce a news story to accompany the broadcast.

NBC stations say the banks and other industries are overreacting.

In a response to Mr. Field's letter, the general manager of WGEM-TV in Quincy, Ill., pointed out that the movie is "a purely fictional thriller. ... This program does not suggest or imply that any of the events depicted could actually occur."

However, a consultant specializing on year-2000 issues said that bankers are correct to be concerned.

"There is no question this movie will increase the level of panic and anxiety people feel," said Lou Marcoccio, research director for GartnerGroup Inc. in Westboro, Mass. "Seeing an actual scenario played out on television is going to scare people much more than just reading about what could happen in a newspaper."

He cited the movie "Jaws" as an example of the widespread fear a movie can sow. That film left many who watched a fictional shark terrorize a resort town too scared to swim in the ocean.

Compared with the film's portrayal of the catastrophes that befall utility companies, the treatment of banks is relatively benign, according to Don A. Childears, president of the Colorado Bankers Association, who saw the movie this week.

Even so, Mr. Childears plans to appear on a special panel discussion to be held on an NBC affiliate in Denver after the movie. The station has also agreed to run a "crawler" along the bottom of the screen four times during the broadcast, informing viewers that the movie is fictional, and referring them to a special Y2K hotline if they have any questions.

Julian Hester, chief executive officer of the Community Bankers Association of Georgia, said that worries about the movie have reached the Statehouse in Atlanta. For the past week he has had informal discussions with legislators fearful of what public reaction will be on Monday. "People buy bad news, they believe it," he said. "It is rather frightening to think about what could happen."

Of course, the doom and gloom could be avoided if viewers watch something else, such as "Sunday Night Football" or the ageless classic "Wizard of Oz," which will air at the same time on cable's TBS.

Alan Kline, Matt Andrejczak, and Craig Woker contributed to this story.

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.