Linda Ellerbee is smart and sassy and clever and wise. And yet she has chosen to work in network news. Perhaps that indicates a weakness in her character, and yet she's so good at what she does that you wouldn't want to imagine her doing anything else.
*However, NBC News executives apparently have little trouble imagining such a thing. As of June 25, Ellerbee's contract with NBC News is up, and management is not exactly doing somersaults to keep her. To the contrary, it has offered her a new contract with a 40 percent cut in pay from what she is making now.
*Some NBC executives were reportedly ticked off about things Ellerbee said about them, and about TV news, in her new book, "And So It Goes," now a best seller. But there's nothing very damning in it. Ellerbee is as hard on herself as she is on anybody else.
*The book is fresh and blunt, like Ellerbee, and amusingly instructive. Quotes of praise on the back cover include raves from colleagues at other networks, like Sam Donaldson of ABC News and Mike Wallace of CBS News. Ellerbee is widely admired for her tart, incisive, personal style. That may be just what NBC News isn't interested in right now.
*Lawrence K. Grossman, NBC News president, was asked why the network isn't trying harder to keep Ellerbee around. "She is very valuable to NBC News," Grossman insisted yesterday from Los Angeles. "We'd really like to have her stay. She's a terrific writer and a good producer. There's no anchoring opportunity for her at this point, but she is a very able and intelligent correspondent."
*Grossman implied that Ellerbee is making an anchor's salary while doing a correspondent's job. Her salary reportedly is $225,000; with the pay cut, $135,000. That may sound like a lot, but it isn't in network news circles. Grossman claims her new salary (he won't comment on figures) would put her "at the very top of the range" for correspondents, but there are several network correspondents making more than $200,000.
*Besides, it isn't Ellerbee's fault that she is being unimaginatively underutilized by the network right now. All she does is a delightful weekly five-minute oddities-in-the-news report, "T.G.I.F.," Fridays on the "Today" show. NBC can't find better ways to deploy her talents.
*She has been an anchor -- first on "Weekend," a legendarily good NBC News magazine show, and then on "NBC News Overnight," a late-late news hour she coanchored. In 1983, NBC Chairman Grant A. Tinker, Mr. Integrity himself, canceled "Overnight" in a fit of shortsighted muddle-headedness. The show cost tuppence to produce ($200,000 for five hours a week versus at least $500,000 for one weekly hour of "1986"), but Tinker, whose specialty is sitcoms, murdered "Overnight" anyway. It took every award in the book to the grave with it.
*Among the fans of "Overnight" was ABC News anchor Ted Koppel, who'd watch the show on those nights when, because of late-breaking developments, his own "Nightline" had to be redone for the West Coast time zone. On Dec. 2, 1983, the last night of "Overnight," Koppel gave the show a five-minute obituary on "Nightline."
From an airplane en route to Washington yesterday, Koppel said of Ellerbee and her contract negotiations: "I hope that NBC treats her badly, so we can have a chance at her. I would love to have Linda working for us. She'd be a tremendous asset to ABC News."
How good is she? "She's an absolutely superb writer, a terrific on-camera performer, a wonderful interviewer and a fine reporter," Koppel said. "Other than that, I don't think she's worth a damn."
Actually, though, ABC News had a chance to hire Ellerbee. A spokesman confirmed that ABC was contacted by Ellerbee's agent Ralph Mann. "He was interested in major anchor roles. We have none available, so there were no discussions," the spokesman said. At CBS News, Ellerbee is "highly admired," a source said, and though Mann did not contact CBS, there may be interest there.
However, those close to Ellerbee say she wants to stay at NBC. Although her book romps about among the absurdities and inanities of TV news, Ellerbee writes near the conclusion, "There are signs of hope concerning TV news and my network."
*Meanwhile, reports have been circulating that Ellerbee is being considered as, of all things, a guest host for "The Tonight Show," now that Johnny Carson has banished Joan Rivers from the vaunted Desk of Desks. Reached in Chicago, where she declined to comment on her contract struggles with NBC, Ellerbee said yesterday the "Tonight" gig was news to her.
*"I have no idea where that came from," she said. "I just read about this. I think it's made up." What if she were actually offered the job? "The first thing I would do, if I were still an employe of NBC News, is ask Larry Grossman if I could do it. I was asked to host six hours of the Amnesty International rock concert Sunday. Larry said no. So I didn't."
*Grossman said a published report of the "Tonight Show" business was also the first he'd heard of it. Asked if he would give the nod for Ellerbee to do this kind of moonlighting, Grossman said, "Offhand, I can't imagine that that would be consistent with the job of being an NBC News correspondent."
Ellerbee scored a hit with Executive Producer Frederick De Cordova when she was a guest on the Carson show recently. Even if Grossman said yes, wouldn't Ellerbee feel a little strange in such a role? "I'd be a better host than guest, because I'm more confident asking questions than answering them," Ellerbee said. But would she want to ask questions of Suzanne Pleshette and Charles Nelson Reilly? Ellerbee chuckled and said, "I'm going to dye my hair blond and get a hot tub with a view."
Ellerbee confirmed that she is writing a screenplay based on her book. While she was promoting it in Los Angeles, a movie producer got interested and gave her some money. "I'll write it, and they'll hate it, and they'll hire someone else," Ellerbee said with cheerful skepticism.
*This is the way such things often happen in Hollywood.
*The title "And So It Goes" is what anchor Lloyd Dobyns invented as a sign-off for "Weekend," which aired on NBC from 1974 to 1979 and which was not a flop. When it moved from late night to prime time, Ellerbee joined Dobyns as coanchor. Then it flopped, but not because of Ellerbee.
*And not because of Dobyns either. The show was simply better suited to the later hours and couldn't compete in the hysteria of prime time. Dobyns says that NBC's success with "Weekend" late Saturday nights is what led to the creation of "Saturday Night Live" and that "Weekend," not "SNL," was the show that proved there was an audience there.
*Dobyns is leaving NBC News at the end of this month. The network did not pick up his contract. He is going to buy a farm in North Carolina and write books. He has had enough. And so he goes.
*Linda Ellerbee hasn't had enough yet. She wants to stay in there fighting. In her book, she writes, "I've learned I like my work. All things considered, mine is a good job to have. The pay is outstanding, and you don't have to wear a uniform."
Reuven Frank, twice NBC News president and the creator and producer of "Weekend," was asked about Ellerbee yesterday. "I've always thought of her as extremely talented," he said. "It's true she's stylish and a trifle idiosyncratic, but she is also a hard-working and very good journalist. There aren't enough of those, and those there are, should be cherished."
*In her book, Ellerbee decries the mindless pretty "twinkies" who get lots of jobs on camera in TV news because they look good. Some attractive women who work on camera in TV news have been saying they resent the thrust of this. But if they aren't mindless, she doesn't mean them.
Hanging onto the Ellerbees in network news helps keep the twinkies at bay. Also the clones, the androids, the airbags and the pod heads. If even mildly iconoclastic people like Ellerbee are driven out, then it will be easier than ever to say of network news, "And so it goes -- down the tubes."