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August 03, 1986|Mark Schwed | From United Press-International

NEW YORK — A simple question, a not so simple decision:

Is $1 million enough to smear your face with makeup, beat dawn to work, gain a measure of fame and perhaps sell your soul to the ratings ghouls?

Or do you settle for half the sum, a little sleep, some fun and peace of mind?

For newswoman Linda Ellerbee, the choice was $500,000 and fun--even if the check is signed by the No. 3 network and even if the fun may be short-lived.

Ellerbee's decision to end her 11-year association with NBC News and sign on with ABC's new prime-time news experiment, "Our World," was no surprise.

The surprise was how NBC could let her go, or even propose she take a pay cut, when it knew ABC and CBS were scrambling to sign her on at double and quadruple what she was getting at the No.1 network.

She took the ABC job despite a $1 million offer from CBS, which then unraveled that network's plan to revamp "CBS Morning News" into a traveling broadcast with Ellerbee at the helm.

And so it goes in network news.

Anybody writing about Ellerbee must use the phrase "and so it goes" at least once. It's the title of her best-selling book and her tag line--the line she uses to end her newscasts or special stories, much like the way Walter Cronkite used to say, "And that's the way it is" at the end of his shows.

But anybody can say, "And so it goes," so what makes her so good?

Ellerbee is good because she can write. Most anchors look pretty good and can talk to a camera, but the writing is done by someone else. In Ellerbee's case, she looks OK and talks pretty good but it is her writing that makes her stories sing.

She has style and substance. Her stories speak the truth, with a healthy dash of irreverence, irony and wit. Doesn't sound like the usual network news honcho, does it?

There's more that makes Ellerbee stand out. She doesn't look like a mannequin.

A producer once told her she would not be considered as an anchor unless she lost weight. Ellerbee bristled at the suggestion that weight, makeup or hairstyle had anything to do with being a reporter and promptly added a few more pounds.

Here is one large female reporter who needs to learn some discipline, a network executive must have thought.

So while Ellerbee's book, a sharp-edged account of her TV career, zoomed up the best-seller list, while she wrote a screenplay, signed a six-figure deal for a novel, and churned out her TGIF (Thank God It's Friday) reports on NBC's "Today," NBC was offering her a pay cut.

Time to leave.

The problem is that after "NBC News Overnight" was canned, NBC never had anywhere to put Ellerbee. In effect, her once-a-week TGIF on the "Today" show was costing NBC $250,000.

On the other hand, CBS, which just went through a round of layoffs, was willing to spend $1 million for the 41-year-old Texan, and place her in the hot seat--anchor of the third-ranked "CBS Morning News."

But ABC won Ellerbee for "Our World," an interesting new experiment in prime-time news programming, blending scenes from the country's recent history with first-hand recollections of "witnesses" who participated in the events, to bring to life the challenges, texture and life styles of bygone times.

"We are very, very pleased that Linda has decided to join us. Her enormous talent will give added strength to 'Our World' and insure its high quality," ABC News President Roone Arledge said in a statement. "Moreover, having Linda as part of our strong corps of correspondents adds to the stature and prestige of ABC News."

Even though the stakes are higher in prime time than daytime, there should be less ratings pressure on "Our World" than "CBS Morning News." ABC knows it has no chance to win the "Our World" time slot this fall because it goes up against the top two programs in television--NBC's "The Cosby Show" and "Family Ties."

But at last, instead of the dead of night, or the dawn of day, Ellerbee gets her chance to shine--in prime time.

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