And so it goes: Linda Ellerbee is leaving television after a 44-year career that, in New York, began all the way back in 1973 at WCBS/2. Her run ever since has been groundbreaking, historic, pioneering and -- ironically enough -- often out of sight to the majority of most TV news viewers.
Ellerbee memorably -- as insomniacs would attest -- worked the overnight hours on NBC and ABC, creating in the process a whole new form of presentation, couched in attitude, irony and perspective. As she would be the first to admit, straight-ahead news delivery wasn't necessarily her bag.
Her NBC run in the '70s was also engineered by its legendary news president, Reuven Frank, who rightly saw in her something utterly new and fresh. She was paired with fellow ironist Lloyd Dobyns. (Who among us remember Lloyd, now living in Virginia? He had a helmet of hair and mustache to match, and could occasionally turn a news story into a comedy routine, at least if it was a nonserious news story that merited pillory).
They were excellent newscasters and also got away with murder -- mostly because Frank and the other bosses were asleep at the time.
Their famed closer, "At so it goes," was of course freighted with a sense of resignation -- a sort of plus ca change, and recognition that the world is mad and there's nothing a pair of sleep-deprived TV anchors could do about it.
She later went to ABC, took that grand style (and eyeglasses) with her, and then at the height of the first Gulf War, took up Nick chief Gerry Laybourne's offer to produce a show that would offer perspective to kids, and also (frankly) reassure them that they were not about to be gassed.
Nick News was born --- Ellerbee's weekly news wrap that never talked down to her very youthful audience, but directly to them, in a no-nonsense manner that avoided patronizing (or matronizing) but instead embraced an explanatory, and to an extent reassuring, approach. Implicit in this approach: The world may indeed be mad, but let us help you understand what all the noise and madness around you is about.
Millions of children grew up with Ellerbee. I do believe she is the longest running continuous presence on Nickelodeon, which was and remains one of the world's most influential networks. Ellerbee understood that influence, appreciated it, and never once -- to my knowledge -- betrayed it.
Her departure, which will be marked by a special on Dec. 15, will leave a void. Until she came along, television news never seriously thought about children as a meaningful demographic. There were a lot of reasons for that -- and not necessarily ones born of financial imperative or some other cynical motive. TV has simply been ill-equipped to handle the task. Ellerbee taught the industry how.
The looming question with her departure -- will those lessons be forgotten?
I spoke briefly with Ellerbee, 71, Tuesday. An edited version of our chat:
Why are you going?
"I told Nick a year and a half ago. The plan was for my son Joshua to inherit the company [Lucky Duck Productions, which will also be shuttered]. But children have their own minds. He and his wife and three sons are now living in London."
But why are you leaving?
"I was approaching my 70th birthday and I told them a year and half in advance, and told our employees -- most of whom have stayed up until the last moment. I'm 71. There's nothing more to it than that. I'm not Mike Wallace. I never had any desire to die in the saddle."
Health OK? [Ellerbee is a cancer survivor].
"My health is excellent ... I want to go."
So, you happy with that "pioneer" label?
"Who would've thought it! I was voted the girl most likely to be canceled on any number of occasions. The right word is 'survivor.' Lloyd and I had a great run but 'Overnight' was only two and a half years. Nick News was 25 years. I never went that long without having something canceled underneath me."
What was the toughest story you reported over those years at Nick?
"AIDS. That was always the hardest one because of the connection to sex and because not all 8-year-olds had had any sexual education. It was the hardest story to find a door into and the door we finally found was that until a cure [is found] the best weapon is education -- that you need to know about this."
How did you cover racism?
"During the OJ trial, we never covered [the trial] once. I did not want to be part of that noise. But when the verdict came out and it showed how divided the country was along racial lines, I looked at this and said now we're going to do a show on race. [But] it's always a good time to talk about race."
What's the next move in the Ellerbee career timeline?
"I actually think I'm going to become a shepherd. What else does 44 years in television news qualify me for?"