NBC rigged Chevy trucks to explode in certain tests for its weekly Dateline expose show back in November 1992. It wanted to prove that under certain conditions Chevy pickup gas tanks would blow up spontaneously. The segment was titled “Waiting To Explode.” Yeah, a lot of viewers tuned in to see if exploding Chevy pickups could kill them.
The problem was NBC didn’t tell its viewers or General Motors it set up explosives inside of the trucks to trigger the explosions to capture on film in a most dramatic way. This is not to say these trucks weren’t known for this to happen in certain collisions. These pickups built from 1973 to 1987 had gas tanks that were placed outside of the frame rails.
Thousands Of Exploding Pickups
GM was battling thousands of lawsuits over its side-saddle tanks blowing up in a side collision. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found GM had data proving 19% of all side impacts involving these pickups had high fuel leakage potential. That’s why there were so many explosions.
Based on the NHTSA reporting over 2,000 people were killed in fire crashes in these trucks between 1973, when they were introduced, until 2009. Remember the exploding Ford Pintos? The pickup truck fatalities were 20-times more than in cases involving the Pinto.
NHTSA directed GM to recall over six million trucks to fix the problem, but GM refused. To add to the already huge amount of attention the story was generating NBC wanted to show trucks exploding. In such a dramatic fashion it would prove what the news was reporting, capitalizing on a horrific potential for millions of owners.
Incendiary Devices Triggered Exploding Pickups
What the network did was place incendiary devices to a truck triggering an explosion on demand. The resulting footage was dramatic. Leading up to the airing NBC ran hundreds of spots around its regional and national newscasts, in addition to its most popular shows. “Chevy pickups are exploding, only on NBC.” It would be a ratings bonanza.
GM was not looking good. And now there was dramatic footage giving graphic evidence that blew up its reputation. Pending lawsuits were guaranteed to be lost, not to mention the huge public relations problem. Victims’ families were reminded of the gruesome way loved ones perished in a most-graphic demonstration.
The problem was NBC never admitted to rigging the explosions. Even after GM sued for defamation after being tipped off. Eventually, the network did its own investigation and found out how the Dateline producers were able to capture the truck explosions. Now it had a PR nightmare rivaling GM’s. The staged footage broke basic journalistic rules.
Embarrassment and Rolling Heads
The ultimate embarrassment came when NBC anchors Jane Pauley and Stone Phillips read a three-minute apology on the air. By then all major news organizations had scooped NBC and spelled out what it had done and how it tried to cover it up. “When they read the apology everyone who has ever been associated with that place was embarrassed,” said former NBC News president Reuven Frank.
The epic scandal meant heads would start rolling. Dateline executive producer Jeff Diamond, Dateline segment producer Robert Read, and correspondent Michele Gillen were all fired. The rival to CBS juggernaut news program 60 Minutes, Dateline sank in the ratings.