The most surprising part of “Nick News With Linda Ellerbee” going off the air? The fact that it’s still on in the first place.
In a world of slashed TV network budgets and an increased demand for buzz in the social media era, “Nick News” hung on for 25 years doing exactly what it always did: Teaching kids about important, sometimes controversial current events in an intelligent, straightforward manner. Much of this is a testament to the power of Ellerbee, the veteran broadcast journalist who has hosted the program since 1991.
In addition to Nickelodeon’s announcement on Tuesday that the final “Nick News” will air in December, Ellerbee confirmed she will retire after 44 years in the news business. Ellerbee, 71, says it’s her decision to leave. “It’s really nice to be one of the few who walks away from television news on their own time and of their own choice and I’m really lucky in that,” she told the AP. “That really didn’t happen for so many of my contemporaries.”
It’s hard to find a millennial who doesn’t remember watching an Ellerbee “Nick News” special in the 1990s. Whether she was discussing AIDS with Magic Johnson after he revealed he was HIV-positive, or talking politics with former presidents, Ellerbee became a master at boiling down crucial — yet often frightening — issues for her young audience in a way that didn’t scare them.
That was one of the first lessons she learned when she stumbled into the job in January 1991, when Nickelodeon asked her to host an informative program for kids about the Gulf War. According to Buzzfeed, Ellerbee — who had spent 15 years at NBC and ABC as a news anchor — was unsure until she saw ABC’s Peter Jennings host a similar special. She was horrified. “He had a gas mask in his hand and he gave it to a kid! I knew what not to do,” Ellerbee said.
Ellerbee tried a distinctive tone on the Nickelodeon special, “Kids Talk About the Middle East,” one that was frank but reassuring. From there, “Nick News With Linda Ellerbee” was born. The program, a critical hit, tackled everything: “A Dream on Fire” (May 1992) explained the race riots in Los Angeles. “After the Verdict” (October 1995) explored the O.J. Simpson trial. “My Family is Different” (June 2002) discussed same-sex parents. “Coming Home: When Parents Return From War” (June 2008) was the first children’s program to win the Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Network News Documentary.
“Nick News” also played a role in presidential elections. The show became an almost mandatory campaign stop for presidential candidates to field questions from young viewers — in the last six election cycles, only Mitt Romney (2012) and John Kerry (2004) declined to be interviewed. The election specials were also accompanied by a poll where kids voted: They correctly called the results five out of six times. (In 2004, the kids predicted Kerry would win.)
The show aired less frequently as the years went on, with only a few specials in 2015; they featured everything from gender equality to Internet privacy to children with terminal illnesses. And as children have an overwhelming number of TV options these days (not to mention mass layoffs at Nickelodeon’s parent company Viacom), it seems like the natural time for the end: Earlier this year, Ellerbee admitted to Buzzfeed “It’s stunning to me [the show] is still around.”
Now, the show will say goodbye on Dec. 15 with a final special called “Hello, I Must Be Going: 25 Years of Nick News with Linda Ellerbee.” It’s a fitting tribute to Ellerbee, who had a rather legendary career as a broadcast journalist and became a motivational speaker after her battle with breast cancer.
“Possibly the most important truth I take with me is the firm knowledge that you are never too old to learn from young,” Ellerbee said in a statement. “I’m pretty sure I’ve been the luckiest journalist on television. It’s been a great ride, all of it, but it’s time to go, and I go smiling.”