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HOWARD ROSENBERG

Adventures In Tv News With 'Today's' Ellerbee

March 19, 1986|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Linda Ellerbee is not your usual TV-news celebrity.

She may not even be a celebrity. It's a commentary on her NBC career that you have to explain most of the shows she's worked on.

Mention that John Chancellor once anchored "NBC Nightly News" or that Bryant Gumbel anchors "Today," and that's enough. Ellerbee, though, co-anchored NBC's "Weekend," then "NBC News Overnight," then "Summer Sunday, U.S.A." You remember those programs. Sure you do.

Ellerbee's current assignment is to present an offbeat package of stories titled "T.G.I.F" each Friday on "Today." Her presence on America's favorite morning show seems almost a fluke (Ellerbee sharing a stage with the Willard of Weather?), just as she is a fluke of TV news, a wonderful, lusty, off-center, raised-eyebrow, side-glancing accident, an alien from "The Twilight Zone" trapped inside "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."

And as a bonus, she can write.

To prove it, she has produced a book about her career called "And So It Goes: Adventures in Television." A long, very funny, often self-effacing excerpt appears in this month's Playboy magazine, but not as the centerfold.

Ellerbee, 41, bemusingly views the world through huge horn-rimmed glasses that seem to occupy half the screen. She is from Texas, but she learned as a young NBC correspondent that no one with TV news ambitions should sound like Texas or Alabama or New Jersey or Maine. People in TV news are squeezed from a tube.

"My bosses said we should all sound alike," Ellerbee writes. "They said we should all sound as if we'd grown up in the same place. I asked them what place that was. One executive thought his office would be appropriate, and the others soon agreed, since they hadn't been to Iowa or North Carolina, but they'd all been to his office."

No dummy, Ellerbee learned how to sound "as I were from nowhere."

Actually, she was from KHOU-TV in Houston. "It is said that in journalism there is no such thing as a dumb question, only dumb answers," she writes. "That is wrong. I worked for local news. There are dumb questions."

In fairness, print reporters ask dumb questions, too, but aren't required to blab their ignorant or tasteless questions in front of a camera. As a young newspaper reporter in the late 1960s, for example, one of my jobs was to get reactions from families of GIs killed in Vietnam.

How did you feel, sir, when you learned that your son had died ?

Unfortunately for them, TV reporters ask their classic "How did you feel?" and other questions on the air. Why? Because they're "constantly auditioning to be television reporters someplace else," says Ellerbee, "and for that, they need--or think they need--to be seen or heard in their news reports."

How they are seen or heard is often an obsession. Christine Craft tells hilarious stories about the clothes imposed on her as an anchorwoman in Kansas City. Ditto for Ellerbee, when she co-anchored "Weekend" with Lloyd Dobyns from 1978 to 1979.

Ellerbee said NBC bought and selected their clothes and had her resembling a "Twinkie," her synonym for idiot. "My hair was slicked back and pinned on top of my head, my blouses were silk and frilly, my hems were even and were attached to skirts, not pants--and my shoes often matched my eye shadow or lip gloss."

"Weekend" began as a weekly late-night program in 1974, then began alternating with "Saturday Night Live" once a month in 1978 until being shifted by then-NBC President Fred Silverman to a weekly prime-time slot. The show premiered in prime time opposite the last installment of "Roots."

Not that Ellerbee is bitter. "There is this to say about Fred Silverman: He let 'Weekend' stay on the air longer than 'Supertrain.' "

Ellerbee and Dobyns discovered that "Weekend" had been canceled only after arriving in Palm Springs for an interview with President Gerald Ford. If nothing else, though, the Palm Springs trip produced one of Ellerbee's funniest anecdotes:

Ford told Ellerbee that he was surprised to see her date of birth on the bio that NBC sent him. The only thing she ever lied about was her height, replied Ellerbee, who is 5-foot-6.

When Ford asked how tall she was, Ellerbee replied, tongue-in-cheek, that she was 5-foot-11. "I can't see why you'd want to lie," said Ford, earnestly. "Five feet, 11 inches is a very nice height for a woman."

For the record, "NBC News Overnight" was a 1983 hip, off-the-wall, wee-hours program that lasted four months.

For the record, "Summer Sunday, U.S.A." was a clumsy magazine show that ran two months and saddened few people by expiring in September, 1984.

And for the record, Linda Ellerbee is no Twinkie.

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