Linda Ellerbee is out of work again. So what else is new? On Friday, Ellerbee and ABC News came to terms and she officially departed the network, a few months after it canceled "Our World," the weekly nostalgiamentary she coanchored with Ray Gandolf. It had millions of fans. Just not millions enough.
Now Ellerbee thinks there is a future for the "Our World" show, or one very much like it, on public TV, and she says that some of the $5 million needed to underwrite the first 13 episodes on PBS has already been committed, by a firm she would not name.
"I'm not leaving with any animosity toward ABC," Ellerbee said Saturday during her visit to a convention of Viewers for Quality Television (VQT) at a Tysons Corner motel. "I'm not going away from this bitter at all. I'm just going out to fail on my own for a change."
VQT, a fledgling upstart group with 1,200 members, organized a letter-writing campaign to try to persuade ABC not tocancel "Our World," which each week took viewers back, via news footage and interviews, to a different period in the American past. CBS News just completed a pilot for its own imitation of the show, "The Way We Were."
ABC executives were not moved by the 20,000 letters they received. "And if they admit to 20,000, that means there was probably a bunch more," said Ellerbee. Many "Our World" fans also wrote to newspapers. More than 300 letters of protest over the cancellation were received at The Washington Post, from places as diverse as Paris, Tenn.; Huachuca City, Ariz.; Kaneohe, Hawaii; Acushnet, Mass.; Beeville, Tex.; and Elgin Air Force Base in Florida.
The letters were adamant, passionate and articulate. Many were from people who said "Our World" was the only prime-time TV show they watched.
Ellerbee thanked the 50 VQT members who showed up at the conference for their efforts to save "Our World" and said she was still a tad baffled by the cancellation. "We were not meant to be a successful show," she said. "We were meant to be a finger in the dike against Cosby." It was the sad fate of "Our World" to be slotted opposite NBC's "Cosby Show," the top-rated program in all of prime time.
"They told us we just had to be respectable and make money," Ellerbee recalled. "We were respectable, and we did make money." Indeed, all season long ABC insisted the show turned a profit, and one insider said it actually came in under budget. But television is now a business in which, as Ellerbee told her audience at the VQT session, "what's true today is not true tomorrow."
Everything's gone, in a word, nuts.
Dorothy Swanson, founder and president of the group, is sorry efforts to save the show failed. VQT was instrumental in preventing or reversing the cancellations of the prime-time series "Cagney & Lacey" and "Designing Women." But that's not the role she wants the group to play anyway, Swanson said.
"We're not a campaign factory. This isn't what we like to do. If we'd gotten on the stick about 'Our World' earlier, maybe this would never have happened."
The sensation of a series folding beneath her is not new to Ellerbee. She previously presided over the demises of "Weekend," one of the few NBC News magazine shows to succeed, and "NBC News Overnight," an inimitable late-night news hour that Grant Tinker, then chairman of NBC, scuttled in a frenzy of merciless cost-cutting.
In her farewell to viewers on the last edition of "Our World," which aired in May, Ellerbee said, "By the way, if you're wondering if this sort of thing gets easier with practice, it doesn't. And so it goes." Gandolf told the faithful who mourned the cancellation, "You deserve better. I hope you get it." Gandolf remains on the staff of ABC News.
There were still two years to go on Ellerbee's contract, she said, but it contained a clause that said if she and ABC News couldn't find a mutually acceptable assignment, she could leave, and ABC would have to pay her the full salary for whatever time remained on the contract. Ellerbee indicated she settled for less. "We both gave in some," she said.
ABC executives, meanwhile, have insisted they own the rights to the title "Our World." Big deal. "We never liked the title from the beginning," Ellerbee says. A possible title for the PBS series is "Your World." It will be produced by Ellerbee's own company, Lucky Duck Productions, which operates out of her Greenwich Village town house, now being remodeled.
Ellerbee doesn't have to worry about income for a while, not only because of her settlement with ABC, but because her breezily autobiographical book, "And So It Goes," has been a best seller in both hardcover and paperback, although Ellerbee says the publisher hasn't told her how many copies have been sold.
"I have never asked," she says. "I just look at the check. I love the check."
Lucky Duck, named after a toy Ellerbee once bought upon leaving a hospital with a clean bill of health (cancer had been suspected), will offer a home to "some of the best people in the business, people that network television cannot seem to find a use for," Ellerbee says. Some 100 re'sume's have sailed over the transom already, including some from "award-winning producers who shouldn't be out of work. There is no shortage of quality people loose out there in this business."
Network news is not a happy place, not at any of the networks, where new bottom-line managements have gouged budgets, fired longtime employes and trashed esprit de corps.
"It's not that the networks are bad or good, but they're all equally scared," says Ellerbee. "The news divisions are not doing very well in corporate eyes at the moment. As a result, you find that news decisions are being made by people who are more worried about their jobs than about their product.
"One thing that's true of all the network news departments is that if you walk in and say, 'Take me to your documentary department,' you're going to have a hard time finding people. All three have dissolved their documentary units without any fanfare about it. I have friends at all three networks and I have never seen morale lower. It makes me real grateful to be out of all this."
Ellerbee wouldn't talk much about differences between ABC News and NBC News, where she worked previously. She did not become close with ABC News President Roone Arledge, whom she rarely saw. Ellerbee, Gandolf and the "Our World" staff heard their program was canceled not from network management but from a report on "Entertainment Tonight."
Barbara Walters was friendly when they met in the halls, Ellerbee recalled, and Hugh Downs, cohost of "20/20," was "a class act from Day One." Downs called with condolences when the show was canceled. Arledge did not call with condolences. "The only network executive to call and express sorrow was Reuven Frank," Ellerbee says. Frank was Ellerbee's boss at NBC News and executive producer of "Weekend."
If the new version of "Our World" on public TV comes about, Ellerbee says she will appear onscreen less; there won't be the awkward studio transitions between film segments. And there may be no cohost, although if there is one, Ellerbee says her old "Weekend" pal, Lloyd Dobyns, is her first choice. "Although when I mentioned it to him once," Ellerbee says, "he said to me, 'Work for you? On a cold day in July.' "
Dobyns quit NBC News and is now a free-lancer.
Ellerbee, who freely admits to being 43 (and to having children aged 17 and 18, both college-bound), says her production company has a deal pending with HBO and with "a couple of the other usual suspects." She likes the idea of being her own boss, perhaps because she is a naturally bossy person. "I never want to work for anybody else again," she says. "Of course, if I can't get a job some place, I'll probably come crawling back.
"The way I look at it now, all that can happen is I lose everything I own. I've been raising kids since I was 24 and that part of my life is pretty much over. Now it's time for me to take some flier of my own."
Viewers of, as well as for, quality television, are likely to follow Linda Ellerbee wherever she goes.