Linda Ellerbee on 'Nick News,' 'Overnight' and her amazing career
When Linda Ellerbee began a career in network TV news, she was one of only a handful of women on the air. When she retired 43 years later, in 2015, TV news had undergone a couple of revolutions, with Ellerbee in the midst of them. Gender imbalance is a sorry and distant memory, thanks in part to her.
But these days, TV news and — to a certain extent — the whole wide world has slipped from her view. Since wrapping "Nick News with Linda Ellerbee '' in 2015, she's spent half her time in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, which she describes as the "Greenwich Village" of Pacific seaside resorts. Ellerbee, 78, insists she's still busy, but busy with retirement: Walking five miles a day, eating well, and finally clearing her mind of what she calls "monkey brain," or that condition where "22 or 2,200 thoughts'' are racing all at once.
She says she's happy and, above all, "lucky" — the word she favors most to describe her entire life.
Born Linda Jane Smith in Bryan, Texas (Ellerbee was the name of one of her husbands — she's been married four times), she went to Vanderbilt University, dropped out, then traveled to Alaska, where she picked up odd jobs in radio. Back in Texas, she worked briefly for The Associated Press then was fired after accidentally sending a personal letter over the wire. A station manager at Houston's KHOU, hired her anyway — TV was under pressure to get more women on the air.
WCBS/2 promptly hired her, then in 1974, she moved to NBC News, where she quickly became a star correspondent and maverick. After the short-lived Sunday magazine show, "Weekend," she and co-anchor Lloyd Dobyns were tapped for "NBC News Overnight," which aired in the bleakest part of the broadcast day (1:30 to 2:30 a.m., Fridays from 2 to 3 a.m.) but was also quickly recognized as one of the finest news program on U.S. TV, by critics and (especially) fans.
After publication of her bestselling memoir, "And So It Goes," ABC hired her for the magazine show "Our World" devoted to historical subjects — she co-anchored with Ray Gandolf — but the show, which aired Thursdays at 8 p.m. during the 1986 season, was cannon fodder opposite NBC's "Cosby Show." She launched Lucky Duck Productions in 1987 with her partner, Rolfe Tessem. From this came the long-running "Nick News with Linda Ellerbee," the seminal news program for kids and teens that aired from 1991 until 2015 (which was revived in 2020.)
We spoke recently about her life and career. The interview was edited for clarity and brevity.
Set the stage for me. You were a female journalist after a run in local TV news — including briefly WCBS/2 — who then landed at NBC News' Washington bureau.
[President] Nixon had just resigned and as a journalist I was like — what are we going to cover now? You had [CBS'] Connie Chung and Lesley Stahl — excellent at what they did — but the networks were very slow in hiring women. In fact, their attitude was that "putting the broads in broadcasting" would ruin the party. But at that time, the FCC was basically saying you've got to hire a lot more than blue-eyed white men. [NBC's star hires included Cassie Mackin, Jessica Savitch and Ellerbee.]
You've said before that you were neither an iconoclast nor pioneer. How did you see yourself back during that early part of your career?
Pioneer makes me sound like I'm more important than I am. I was part of a group of women. [who] helped each other because we knew we were strangers in a strange land, and [the networks] didn't really want us and that we would — you know the line — hang together or hang separately.
A bleak environment.
There's no woman I know my age that's worked in television news who does not absolutely and freely and openly admit to having worked in very hostile environments — in the sense that nobody ever thought anything about reaching out to pinch our bottom or rub up against us or make dirty jokes. You better be strong in an environment like that.
You and Andrea Mitchell did make history — as the first dual female anchor team on a network news program.
It was 'Summer Sunday USA'  — a dreadful show, and the idea for the promos were for me and Andrea to be perched on suitcases, with our legs crossed like some sort of scene from a 1940s movie. We said no, no, no, we're not going to do that.
You and Lloyd Dobyns instead became the iconic anchor team.
We had a world view that was very similar. I was a little more optimistic than Lloyd was but everyone was a little more optimistic than Lloyd. Our friendship continued after retirement. And, you know, I remained close to his family. He died at the tail end of COVID [August 2021] and the issue was, what to do with the ashes. The decision of the family was to send them to me.
May I be permitted a "Wow!" or "What the …!?"
Yes. I still have the red bench that we sat on [when both anchored] "Weekend" up at my place in the Berkshires. And now, I have Lloyd Dobyns buried underneath it.
That's remarkable. Really.
[Lloyd and I] never had any of those so-called problems that co-anchors have. We also insisted on doing things a certain way on "Overnight." For example, we would not talk to each other on the air but … to the audience because that's who the show was for. We hated it when we saw anchors chit-chatting with one another. Nor would we pretend to do reactions to stories. We'd already seen the story once, twice, before it got on the air, so we weren't going to pretend we were seeing it for the first time.
"Overnight" was a stealth hit and as NBC News President Reuven Frank said at the time, also the best news program on TV. What did you think at the time?
The first rehearsal was a shambles and Lloyd ended up throwing his papers in the air then stomping out. He and I knew we were going on the air that night, and we both agreed — this is the end of our career.
And it turned out quite differently.
We didn't know we were a hit until we were canceled [in December, 1983]. That was the first time we knew. There was this outpouring of support — of people sending thousands of letters to NBC, even sending money to the network to keep us on. And the last night we were on, Ted Koppel devoted three-quarters of "Nightline" to our show.
But you had no idea?
Here's the thing. Nielsen didn't count anything after midnight, so it was always guesswork. We figured West Coast bookies were looking at East Coast news for scores, or maybe people in hotel rooms were watching, or maybe news junkies. We didn't recognize at the time that college dorms would play a big role. And then there were stage actors, musicians, all these people where we would be their prime-time newscast because we were on when they got off work.
What made "Overnight" so special?
We were told the show was good only because it had no money. We had to think our way out of that box. We couldn't hire crews to go out and shoot but had to get our footage from local stations, or ask correspondents to stay around after "Nightly" to recut their pieces for us. And they did this for no remuneration. That's what made us special.
And that special on-air chemistry between the two anchors.
Also, Lloyd and I knew how to work together. We even shared an office and answered each other's phones. Lloyd was always afraid of bill collectors, and I was always afraid of the hate calls because as a woman, that's what you get, and we got a lot. I was always assumed by the person on the other end of the line to be his secretary. No one ever assumed he was mine.
But it lasted just two years.
I closed the last show with a quote from Mark Twain who had written about someone who had gone off to be a missionary. To paraphrase, the young missionary went among the cannibals, and they listened with the greatest of interest to everything he had to say. And then they ate him.
Ha. And so it goes. Which brings us to the question — who really originated your famous signoff [which Ellerbee and Dobyns would alternate on editions of "Overnight"].
Lloyd did. When he was growing up, he'd ask his parents why something terrible or unfair was going on in the world. When his parents [couldn't answer] they'd say, 'And so it goes.' He thought that was the only appropriate ending to try to explain the madness of the world.
Let's jump way forward to "Nick News." Where did the "Lucky Duck" moniker of your production company come from?
I was misdiagnosed with cancer many years ago, and was in Los Angeles at the time for a shoot. I went to the hospital and was told "you have cancer." I was stunned and came back the next day and … [doctors] said — no, you don't have cancer but something very curable! I walked out past the hospital gift shop and was feeling lucky then saw this little stuffed duck in the gift shop window [that] seemed to be smiling at me, and bought it.
When Rolfe said, what do you want to call [the new production company], I said, I don't care. I doubt it will ever amount to anything. Let's call it after my duck — which I'd kept on my desk at NBC.
You were later diagnosed with cancer.
In 1993, and lost both my breasts. A writer for TV Guide, Claudia Dreyfus, wrote a story at the time, and she later told me she got a lot of mail from readers saying, that woman is too happy! She's too optimistic! She shouldn't be smiling. What's wrong with her!? [But] for me, it was an opportunity to change what comes your way. All you can control is how you're going to react to it.
"Nick News with Linda Ellerbee" may be your singular achievement and I think you'd agree. The history is complicated but the fundamental idea was — the first Gulf War had started and Nickelodeon's chief, Geraldine Laybourne, wanted a news program to explain the world to its young viewers. You brought some fundamental tenets to the broadcast, correct?
We were constantly having to make the point over and over again within every one of the horrible stories we reported that where we find bad things happen, you will find good people trying to make it better. We felt it was important to explain that we are all more alike than we are different — it's only that our differences are easier to define. We weren't going to pretend that bad news didn't happen, but we weren't going to lie to [viewers].
You also became part of the culture wars.
The most famous show we ever did was with Magic Johnson where he explained AIDS to a group of kids, some of whom were HIV positive … I held a banana and a condom in the other hand. We couldn't talk about AIDS without talking about safe sex. There was no other way to explain it. I said things on the news back then that I would never have been allowed to say in later years.
The edition about gay families?
We and Nickelodeon were flooded with emails, all of them saying the same thing with the same wording. OK, so you know you're dealing with a mass campaign. Herb Scannell, who was president of Nick at that time and a good man, said he wanted to do the right thing. I said, just take a deep breath. This is going to be the highest-rated show you've ever done.
How did you make editorial decisions about what to cover and what not to cover?
Our mission was to try to explain the news as best we could, right? If you don't talk to kids about it, they're going to get a lot of misinformation, and a lot of schoolyard rumors. You can't ignore the world. That doesn't work, particularly in an internet-connected world. And we didn't. We weren't trying to push kids into thinking one way. We would always say, you're going to hear a certain side — see what you think. I was taught that you must always leave something for the audience to do — in this case, to think for themselves. The conclusion was up to them.
How did you cover Sept. 11?
The very first thing out of my mouth when we started [the coverage] was to say, please remember, that no matter how many times you have seen the images of those buildings fall, they only fell once. That was to address the cumulative effect on a kid's brain — when they see something on TV over and over and over again. That was based on my own fear of growing up in the Cold War — the duck-and-cover generation. No one had ever wanted to explain to me what was going on.
Here's that closing "if you had to do it all over again" question — any regrets about getting out of TV news?
Like "God, I wish I was still working?" No! I can say with all honesty that there are few moments when I say I wish I were out on that [story]. I expected [retirement] to be harder — the way I expected moving out of New York City to be harder — and none of it has been hard.