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For people who spend the day saying and writing things that others accept, while thinking things that are infinitely more interesting.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

NBC News Overnight

It came on after The Tonight Show and The Tomorrow Show, NBC’s contribution to lineal time. NBC News Overnight was an experiment, a fanciful leap into the world of “24-hour news” that CNN had already launched. The thought was probably something like: People are obviously awake at 2 AM, so maybe we can keep them from jumping to cable by throwing news at them.

As obnoxiously banal as the thought may have been, the execution was brilliant. Linda Ellerbee and some guy named Lloyd sat at desks that faced each other, with a newsroom gently scurrying away in the background. And I’m not talking about “newsdesks,” those illegitimate pieces of furniture that have no useful function other than kindling: NBC News Overnight used real desks.

Over time, the desks started letting their hair down, as personal items began making appearances: mugs, photos, stuffed animals, stray paper, the stuff of working life. Lloyd, or whatever his name was, was a stuffed shirt in rolled-up shirtsleeves acting like his presence at that hour was the result of his agent’s ineptitude, but he was too much of a newsgeek to actually drop the ball. Linda was totally different: she twinkled, in on the fun of being up at 2 AM and watching a news show that—heavens to Betsy!—actually gave you news.

For you see, NBC News Overnight was the best newscast network TV ever presented. It didn’t try to shoehorn a topic into a 90-second segment: it followed leads, checked with less-known sources and offered viewpoints from around the world to give you context, not soundbites. It was pure TV journalism without the smarmy pseudodrama of news magazines, an hour that was worth a week’s worth of prime-time network news (and this from a guy who wanted to be Walter Cronkite.)

And above all, Linda had style. Her half-smile clued you in that the serious matters had ended and the lightness was coming. When Lloyd left and Bill came in, Linda explained that a producer had suggested she move from the viewer’s left to the viewer’s right, where Lloyd sat. With a verbal scalpel, Linda said: “The producer called it an idea off the top of his head, and ideas off the top of one’s head are very much like dandruff, small and flaky.” She stayed at her desk.

Linda hated doo wop music, nature pieces and pretty much all sports. Her crowning moment, rewarded by my ejecting cereal halfway across the carpet, was her brief: “In baseball today, the scores were 4 to 1, 5 to 3 and 7 to 2. You like it, you figure out who played who.”

Aside from wit, Linda had soul. She ended one show speaking about the difficult woman who challenged her constantly, never let up on her and never seemed to acknowledge her growth. She ended by telling us the woman was her mother, who had died earlier that day. Her voice broke and my tears emerged as she said goodbye to the woman who pushed her so hard and loved her so much.

One night, like a newsflash, Linda told us that NBC News Overnight was “going off the air.” With Bill nodding slightly as she spoke, Linda went on to say that NBC was canceling the show, not because of ratings, for ratings were actually fairly good, but because the show “was not making enough money.” She slashed at the parsimony that weighed news content versus profits and I got the sense she was closing doors forever. The sharp mind, curled smile and vivid eyes behind oversized glasses was firing away at dandruff thinking and scoring with every word.

I cheered her on and wrote NBC a letter that explained why stupidity reigns in network TV. I sent it with a pocket dictionary so the morons would understand it. I’d like to think Linda would have flashed a half-smile of approval, then skewered me for including a doo wop lyric as my opening line.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bravo, Linda, Bravo

September 22, 2006 3:06 PM  

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