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A FUTURE FOR ELLERBEE? : AND SO IT GOES IN THE TV NEWS GAME

The Washington Post

Linda Ellerbee is smart and sassy and clever. And yet she has chosen to work in television news. Perhaps that indicates a weakness in her character, and yet she’s so good at what she does that you wouldn’t want to imagine her doing anything else.

However, as of next week, Ellerbee’s contract with NBC News is up, and management is not working very hard to keep her. To the contrary, they have offered her a new contract with a 40% cut in pay from what she is making now. Ellerbee is said by associates not to be pleased.

Some NBC executives were reportedly ticked off about things Ellerbee said about them, and about TV news, in her new best-selling book, “And So It Goes,” but there’s nothing very damning in it. Ellerbee is as hard on herself as she is on anybody else.

The book is fresh and cheeky, like Ellerbee, and great fun to read. Quotes of praise on the back cover include raves from colleagues at other networks, like Ted Koppel of ABC News and Mike Wallace of CBS News. Ellerbee is widely admired for her tart, incisive, personal style. That may be just what NBC News isn’t interested in right now.

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Lawrence K. Grossman, NBC News president, was asked why the network isn’t trying harder to keep Ellerbee around. “She is very valuable to NBC News,” Grossman insisted. “We’d really like to have her stay. She’s a terrific writer and a good producer. But there’s no anchoring opportunity for her at this point.”

Grossman implied that Ellerbee is making an anchor’s salary while doing a correspondent’s job. Ellerbee is being under-utilized by the network right now. All she does is her delightful weekly five-minute report, “T.G.I.F.,” Fridays on “The Today Show.” But it’s not her fault NBC can’t find better ways to deploy her talents.

It was NBC chairman Grant Tinker who stupidly canceled “NBC News Overnight,” a late-late news hour co-anchored by Ellerbee, in 1983. The show cost tuppence to produce, and NBC has subsequently wasted millions trying to develop a prime-time magazine show. But Tinker murdered “Overnight” anyway. It took every award in the book to the grave with it.

Meanwhile, reports are circulating that Ellerbee is being considered as a guest host for “The Tonight Show,” now that Johnny Carson has banished Joan Rivers from the post. Reached in Chicago, where she declined to comment on her contract struggles with NBC, Ellerbee said the “Tonight” gig was news to her.

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“I have no idea where that came from,” she said. “I just read about this. I think it’s made up.” What if she were actually offered the job? “The first thing I would do, if I were still an employee of NBC News, is ask Larry Grossman if I could do it. I was asked to host six hours of the Amnesty International rock concert. Larry said no. So I didn’t.”

Grossman said a published report of the “Tonight Show” business was also the first he’d heard of it. Asked if he would give the nod for Ellerbee to do this kind of moonlighting, Grossman said, “Offhand, I can’t imagine that that would be consistent with the job of being an NBC News correspondent.”

Ellerbee confirmed that she is writing a screenplay based on her book. While she was promoting it in Los Angeles, a movie producer got interested and gave her some money. “I’ll write it, and they’ll hate it, and they’ll hire someone else,” Ellerbee said with cheerful skepticism.

This is the way such things often happen in Hollywood.

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The title “And So It Goes” is what anchor Lloyd Dobyns said at the end of the NBC News magazine show “Weekend,” which aired on NBC from 1974-79 and which was not a flop. When it moved from late night to prime time, Ellerbee joined Dobyns as co-anchor. Then it flopped, but not because of Ellerbee.

And not because of Dobyns either. The show was simply better suited to the later hours and couldn’t compete in the hysteria of prime time. Dobyns says that NBC’s success with “Weekend” late Saturday nights is what led to the creation of “Saturday Night Live,” and that “Weekend,” not “SNL,” was the show that proved there was an audience there.

Dobyns is leaving NBC News at the end of this month. The network did not pick up his contract. He is going to buy a farm in North Carolina and write books. He has had enough. And so he goes.

Linda Ellerbee hasn’t had enough yet. She wants to stay in there fighting. In her book, she writes, “I’ve learned I like my work. All things considered, mine is a good job to have. The pay is outstanding, and you don’t have to wear a uniform.”

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Ellerbee elsewhere in the book decries the mindless pretty “Twinkies” who get lots of jobs on camera in TV news because they look good. Keeping people like Ellerbee around helps keep the Twinkies at bay. Also the clones, the androids, the airbags and the pod heads.

If people like Ellerbee are driven out, then it will be easier still to say of network news, “And so it goes--down the tubes.”


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