Linda Ellerbee's 'Nick News': At 15, Still in Its Wonder Years

Host Linda Ellerbee celebrates 15 years of
Host Linda Ellerbee celebrates 15 years of "Nick News" tomorrow. (By Gordan Munro -- Nickelodeon Via Pr Newswire)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 27, 2006

If the Nickelodeon channel is for kids, then why does a certain TV critic laugh with such sofa-shaking zeal at "SpongeBob SquarePants" that his godchildren sometimes ask him to tone it down? And on a loftier plane, why is "Nick News" -- which the network calls "the longest-running and most-watched kids' news show in TV history" -- such a marvel of sense and sensitivity that Uncle Tommy (an honorary title) often finds himself immersed in it, fascinated by it and even deeply touched by it?

The first question is rhetorical; the answer to the second question consists of two words: Linda Ellerbee. The one-time NBC News correspondent and producer ("Overnight," "Weekend") has run "Nick News" -- and fought the occasional good fight to keep it on the air -- since it first signed on in 1991.

To celebrate the start of the program's 15th season, Ellerbee -- host and, with husband Rolfe Tessem, executive producer -- will guide viewers through a brief but brisk history of the show tomorrow night in the 30-minute special "Nick News With Linda Ellerbee: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow -- Celebrating 15 Years of Nick News." Yes, the title is almost longer than the show, but cumbersome and unwieldy titles are a fact of TV life.

It's real life, though, that the show investigates and celebrates. Through an expertly edited assemblage of clips, issues and crises are brought back into focus and rewardingly updated. A little girl who appeared on a "Nick News" special about AIDS in 1992, and talked through tears about how classmates sometimes shunned or ridiculed her for being HIV-positive, is revisited tomorrow -- a cheerfully assertive 22-year-old. Her wish now is essentially what it was then: "I want to be treated with respect."

Magic Johnson appeared on that 1992 program with her, and their moment together -- Johnson assuring her that it's "okay to cry" -- is definitely worth seeing again.

"Most of you weren't even born when 'Nick News' went on the air," Ellerbee tells her viewers at the start of the show. Children seen in a clip from the first program "are grown-ups now," she notes. The show is aimed at the very young, but Ellerbee has never been timid or censorious about subject matter. "Nick News" has devoted programs to the most adult of topics -- to survivors of Hurricane Katrina on one episode, and to survivors of the Holocaust on another.

After the national tragedy on Sept. 11, 2001, Ellerbee's young guests in the studio included a girl who had been a horrified eyewitness to the attack and a Muslim girl who told of later being harassed by other kids. "As a religion," the latter girl says emotionally, "we didn't do anything wrong."

Another installment, "Faces of Hope," introduced Nick viewers to children living in embattled Afghanistan. On a 1996 telecast, an Israeli boy and a Palestinian girl were brought to Nickelodeon's New York studios to talk about the desire for peace among their people and the harsh realities that continually prevent it. In a program titled "The Legacy of Slavery," young African Americans read aloud from the diaries of children brought to America in chains.

Sometimes the topics -- same-sex parents, homelessness, the plight of Native Americans -- sound as though they came from an approved list of the politically correct, but the show's approach has almost always been original, humanistic and free of canned cant. In a clip from 2004, Ellerbee says there are 35 million "Hispanics" in this country but is interrupted by a girl who corrects her: "Latino, not Hispanic." Then guest John Leguizamo, the talented actor and writer, says jokingly, "We'll take anything."

Sometimes the in-studio sessions -- with children perched on platforms and urged to discuss this or that issue -- come across as unfortunately stiff and tense. Some kids just parrot back prejudicial bilge they've heard from their parents or other alleged adults. But there still have been innumerable cases of refreshing, even startling spontaneity from the children as they grapple with issues that have stymied many a grown-up.

With "Nick News," Ellerbee and her staff have won for Nickelodeon every award in the proverbial book, some of them more than once. Viacom, which owns the network, obviously does not lavish millions on the show's budget, but it has reaped tremendous rewards in terms of reputation and prestige. It's encouraging to know that at some (if not many) cable networks, goodwill and good deeds count for something.

"The guiding rule of 'Nick News' has always been that ignorance is not bliss," Ellerbee says in her introduction, ". . . [and] that wherever you find bad things happening, you find good people, kids included, trying to make it better."

At "Nick News," you find good people making good television. So far, it has been a stunningly unqualified success.

Nick News With Linda Ellerbee (30 minutes) airs tomorrow night at 8:30 on Nickelodeon.

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