Linda Ellerbee, a veteran newswoman who wrote an irreverent best-seller about her time on television and built a second career at Nickelodeon explaining tough stories to youngsters, says that she's signing off the air for good.
Ellerbee, 71, said Tuesday she's retiring from TV after Nickelodeon airs a one-hour retrospective of her work on Dec. 15.
"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 said. "That really didn't happen for so many of my contemporaries, didn't happen because of age or cutbacks in news. ... I go smiling."
The outspoken Texan and multiple award winner was among the first prominent women in TV news and a model for the sitcom character Murphy Brown after actress Candice Bergen studied her work. Ellerbee — and later Murphy Brown — survived breast cancer.
Ellerbee began a television news career after being fired by The Associated Press in 1972. On the night desk in Dallas, she wrote a gossipy letter to a friend that was inadvertently sent on the wire to three states. A news director at Houston's KHOU-TV saw it, thought Ellerbee was a funny writer, and hired her.
She quickly moved on to local news in New York and then NBC, where she covered politics and co-hosted the prime-time newsmagazine "Weekend" with Lloyd Dobyns. She hosted weekly news segments on the "Today" show and, later, "Good Morning America."
Her network news highlight came in the wee hours when she and Dobyns wrote and co-hosted the nightly news program "Overnight" from 1984 to 1986 on NBC. When honored by the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards, judges called it "possibly the best-written and most intelligent news program ever."
"There's never been anything plastic or blow-dried about Linda," said Cheryl Gould, a creator and senior broadcast producer on "Overnight." ''She has always been the antithesis of your stereotypical, perfectly coiffed anchorwoman. Her emotions are not manufactured for the on-air effect. Linda is as real as they come."
Ellerbee's 1986 book, "And So it Goes" — named for her signature sign-off — was climbing the best-seller lists when she was told her contract would not be renewed.
"I wrote it predicated on the assumption that my bosses at NBC News had a sense of humor," she said. "I turned out to be wrong on that."
After a stop at ABC, Ellerbee and partner Rolfe Tessem opened a production company and what became their biggest job happened by chance. The new kids' network Nickelodeon asked her to make a show explaining to youngsters the U.S. war with Iraq in the early 1990s.
She was Nick News head for 25 years, making programs tied to events like the 2001 terrorist attacks, the Oklahoma City bombing and Hurricane Katrina. The show delved into social issues like same-sex marriage and AIDS. She won Emmys for shows on AIDS, children of alcoholics, kids living with cancer, the adjustment of parents returning from war, autism and ethnic cleansing. After a decade of trying, she produced a special this year with dying children talking to their peers.
The guiding philosophy was not to talk down to young viewers. Children in a wired world are aware of news events, but might not always have reliable information, she said.
"The days are long past, if they ever existed, where kids live in some happy little childhood protected by elves and fairies," she said.
Cyma Zarghami, president of the Viacom Kids and Family Group, said Ellerbee has "helped multiple generations of kids understand the issues of the day, and she helped a lot of parents navigate how to talk about the tough topics as well. We are deeply grateful for her immeasurable contributions." The network isn't replacing Ellerbee, but promised to continue a dialogue with viewers on current issues.
While leaving television, Ellerbee said she'll continue to write and travel.
"I can hold my head up, look in the mirror and I didn't have to be ashamed of anything I ever did or wrote," she said. "I fought some battles and I won some and lost some. But I get to walk out the door and look back feeling good about it."