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Culture Shock: TV Newsmen as Pitchmen

June 18, 1989|Michael Hill | The Hartford Courant

A few critics got upset, but come on, was anybody really surprised when newswoman Linda Ellerbee sold her reputation for a cup of coffee?

Sure, it took a reported half-million dollars in java money from Maxwell House to get Ellerbee--a former network star and now a CNN commentator--to team up with "Today" show weatherman Willard Scott for a series of TV ads being broadcast around the country.

But everybody, after all, has their price.

And besides, Ellerbee has explained, she needed the money for her production company.

Ellerbee isn't alone.

PBS' venerable "This Old House" was almost torn asunder recently when producers at WGBH in Boston decided that host Bob Vila's cache of endorsements had undermined the show's editorial foundation. Vila, with 10 years of TV exposure under his work belt, is now free to nail down as many endorsement contracts for Time-Life how-to books and hardware store chains as he pleases.

Are Vila and Ellerbee letting America down?

Probably.

We could understand it when rock stars, never known for taking the moral high ground, traded in their counterculture nights to Michelob.

But the Maxwell House ads, which normally have been perfect satirical fodder for a tongue-in-cheek tirade from Ellerbee, open up a whole new arena of marketing opportunities for TV news stars.

With penny-pinching honchos at the networks and legitimate ex-network newsies popping up in all manner of syndicated schlock, the Ellerbee commercial may be only the beginning.

Imagine, for instance, what Walter Cronkite, friend of the environment, sailor and, of course, "the most trusted man in America" (even if it was a decade or so ago), could do for a chemical company trying to clean up its image. Picture, if you will, what the merging of these two worlds, news and advertising--already on more than friendly terms in TV news--will look like.

Director to Cronkite: "So, Walter, can I call you Walter? Did you bring that sailor cap? We just gotta have the cap or we lose Maine, you know, all those sea states. They're killing us. Front office wants 'em off our backs, and you, Wally babe, you're gonna do it for us, aren't you? Look at that face (He gives Cronkite a light and loving slap on the cheek). Is that a face? Put on the cap, Wally. MUSIC!"

Edvard Grieg's familiar "Morning" is playing. Somewhere, too, we can hear--or maybe are merely imagining--birds chirping. Cronkite, in sailor's cap, is standing before a breathtaking sea view of Martha's Vineyard. His back is to the camera, which comes up from behind and, like some unseen friend, taps him on the shoulder. Cronkite turns and says . . .

"Good evening, I'm Walter Cronkite."

"CUT! Look, Wally, babe. I know you're new at this, but look around you. It's daytime. I thought you said you had this stuff down. You're tense. Loosen up. And next time, try not to be so serious, OK? You're scaring the kiddies and . . ."

All right. Maybe that's a bit much but can't you picture a TV news glamour gal like Diane Sawyer a few years down the road pitching for Lady Clairol?

She'd be in her Manhattan apartment, head tilted to one side, 20 strokes into a comb-out.

"Hi. I'm Diane Sawyer. Is your hair ready for prime time? You know, you don't have to be in television to have beautiful hair. And you certainly don't have to make a career out of it. In fact, it's a snap. How long does it take? (She tilts her head to the other side, coyly). Just 60 minutes. . . ."

Or maybe news anchor Mary Alice Williams, formerly of CNN and now of NBC, for American Express:

"Hi. Do you know me? I'm a network news anchor, but a lot of people still don't know it --especially when I stack my mail up next to Connie Chung's. That's why I always carry my American Express card. . . ."

Come to think of it, all four network news divisions--CBS, ABC, NBC and CNN--might someday succumb to the ultimate temptation, the one made famous by radio news commentator Paul Harvey, where news and commercials are almost indistinguishable.

And so, some evening in the hopefully distant future, we may tune in to the national news and hear a reporter say, "Peter, the United States declared war today. (Pause.) A war on bad breath."

Never happen, right?

No respectable news organization or newsman would do such a thing.

Would they?

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