NBC News Overnight: An Appreciation
By Mike Harney

 Listen to the opening theme (282k WAV, 11kHz/mono/8 bit, 0:26)

Linda Ellerbee described the theme once: "You hear something that may be music or may be the sound Donald Duck would make if you held his head underwater awhile."

"Don't worry. It's a piece of cake. We'll open with a something and a something, tell some news, a little of this, a little of that, watch a commercial, then a thing and a thing, a reel, some not-ready-for-prime-time stuff, more more news, sportstalk, some sports scores - Reuven said we gotta do scores because of bookies or something - then a roll, a reel a roll and a long five - they talk long at the BBC - a recap, some items, once overnightly, another something and a something, goodbyes - and we'll be off. A piece of cake."

- Herb Dudnick, describing Overnight to prospective anchors Ellerbee and Dobyns

NBC News Overnight, a live one-hour news program, aired for about seventeen months starting on July 5, 1982. Its debut coincided with a lunar eclipse, and despite science reporter Robert Bizel's disappearance during the live broadcast (he went for some coffee), it was a success from the first night. It was probably the best-written, best-executed news program ever produced. It never talked down to its viewers because, from day one, it never assumed that the lowest common denominator was the way to go. Entirely the opposite, in fact. The writing was crisp, witty, and smart. Overnight closed its doors in the first week of December 1983, after NBC management dropped it because of low ratings.

The first co-anchors, co-writers, and co-editors for Overnight were Linda Ellerbee and Lloyd Dobyns, who had, a few years previously, co-written and co-hosted Weekend, an offbeat weekly magazine for NBC.

This is how the first program opened:

Dobyns: "Tonight, to inaugurate our program, we bring you an eclipse of the moon. And what other program ever did that for you?"

Ellerbee: "And if you want more, there is more: more news, sports, more more news, the Not Ready for Prime Time News, plus dragon boats, crocodiles, spaceships, and one billion Chinese...more or less. Welcome...to Overnight."

I was hooked immediately. As a matter of fact, I can trace my own interest in journalism directly to Overnight's first week on the air.

After about six months of helping to shape Overnight, Dobyns left to do other work for NBC. (He developed and anchored Monitor, aka First Camera, during this period.) Bill Schechner ably took his place as co-anchor and co-writer until Overnight went off the air.

Overnight featured literary quotations, subtitled reports from overseas news programs for a new perspective, the best features (or sometimes just the silliest) from local affiliates, and a whole grab bag of things never before seen on national news programs. As Bill Schechner said on the final program, it proved that there is more than one way to deliver and to receive the news. Overnight must have been puzzling to some, though, because it had an unexpected mix of both seriousness about important issues and irreverence for nonsense. For instance, when NBC News released a fairly vapid brochure about Central America, Schechner spent his editorial time wisely. While holding up the brochure, he said this in the voice of a carnival huckster:

"It's called 'The NBC News Guide to Central America: Central America in Turmoil'! In these sixteen thrill-packed pages, all somebody thinks you need to know about those pesky southern countries that are making such big news."

Listen to Bill Schechner (131k WAV, 11kHz/mono/8 bit, 0:13)

To illustrate Overnight's content, here's how a fairly typical program went. This one's from late November 1983. Paragraphs indicate commercial breaks.

As with any live broadcast, goofs occurred from time to time on the program. However, the anchors always made the best of it. They would chuckle instead of becoming mortified and simply corrected their mistakes, often injecting a bit of humor. Ellerbee once said this on the program after one such mistake:

"Live TV is a great time saver. It allows you to make a fool of yourself in front of large groups of people instead of one at a time."

Shortly after Dobyns left, an NBC News executive suggested to Ellerbee that she take Dobyns's seat now that she was the senior anchor. Ellerbee said she felt no need for that, but agreed to give it a try. Some nights later, she returned to her old spot. During that broadcast, she explained, after showing a tape of her position changes:

"Lately, you may have noticed a bit of Musical Chairs being played on this program. But in three nights, I have spilled three cups of coffee because the coffee was where it should be, but I was not. So I have moved back. And if the executives don't like it, they may jolly well come and do the show and spill their own coffee."

A year and a half after its birth, NBC decided to cancel Overnight in November 1983, due to low late night ratings -- it aired from 1:30 AM to 2:30 AM -- and corresponding lack of ad revenue. In the following days and weeks, thousands of viewers (ten thousand, to be exact) called and wrote letters or telegrams of protest to NBC management. Some even sent checks and cash to defray the costs of producing the program (all the money was returned).

NBC's news release on the program's cancellation said the program remained "the model of a one-hour news program," but it was being canceled because "being the best is not enough" (NBC News President Reuven Frank). Today, more than a decade later and, I think, to their shame, no network has attempted to do such a program.

I was in Los Angeles on a business trip when I heard the news of the cancellation. Later that day, I sought out a Western Union office and sent a telegram to Grant Tinker, chairman of NBC. It's the only time I've ever sent someone a telegram. Although I was sorely tempted to write "**** you. Strong letter to follow." (with the asterisks), I did not. Instead, I believe I wrote something like this: "Strongly urge you reconsider cancellation of Overnight, the best news program ever."

A small but pretty damned vexing thing came to light when Linda Ellerbee wrote her book, And So It Goes. It led me to believe that factors other than ratings may have contributed to Overnight's demise. Her chapter on the show was titled rather strangely. She closed it like this:

"Why did I call this chapter 'Leave it to Beaver'? Because that's what some of the men at NBC News called Overnight, the first network news program run by women."

During the final few weeks of Overnight's tenure at NBC, some of the newswriters were invited to be the newsreaders for the stories they wrote, instead of being the usual "hazy background figures" often referred to on the program.

Just a week or so before the last story was filed on Overnight, editor Patrick Trese, who wrote the sports copy for the program, read one of his own stories. This one was about the coordinator of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. His closing comments follow. "Linda and Bill and Deborah" refers to Linda Ellerbee and Bill Schechner, co-anchors and principal writers, and Deborah Johnson, executive producer.

Patrick Trese:

So, from time to time, hazy figures do emerge from the background. This month, thanks to Linda and Bill and Deborah, it was my turn. And, tonight, I suspect that it's the last time any of us hazy figures gets to say anything in our own voices.

With Overnight about to close down and our futures uncertain, you might think that we had nothing to celebrate this Thanksgiving, but we did.

Around 6 PM, we shared a turkey dinner with all the fixings in our little office down the hall. Correspondent John Hart burnt a cork and gave everybody a moustache, and we laughed, and Linda read some of your letters out loud. We had a group picture taken on the set and then we all went to work on what we know and the critics tell us is just about the best news program ever.

Sad? Of course. Thankful? You bet. Because we have each other. The best in the business. And we got that way because the people who, now, must take us off the air gave us the chance to show what we hazy figures could do for you, and for ourselves. Most people never get that much, but we did, and we're grateful tonight. And so it goes.

Linda Ellerbee:

Good night from the mushiest newscast in the business. And there are six more.

On the final program, in the midst of the usual news stories, sports on a roll, one final pig feature ("on the theory that your body never outgrows its need for animal stories"), a very funny "best of" segment, and senior producer Cheryl Gould's great set of footage with "Beyond the Blue Horizon" sung by Michael Nesmith underneath*, a few principals gave their commentaries.

*On the original version of this page in 1995, I said it was Lou Christie's version, but Bill Schechner wrote to say he was certain it was the Nesmith version. However, nearly everyone else says it's Christie, including someone who left a comment on the Overnight "Beyond the Blue Horizon" clip on YouTube that says:

Setting the record straight: I'm the producer who created the video. We used Lou Christie's version of the song. We looped a verse to play twice so as to have more time for video. Every frame of the piece came from spots that had aired on NBC News Overnight--network pieces or pieces sent in by affiliates. This video aired twice. The 1st time was for the 1 year anniversary.We all liked it so much that when Overnight was cancelled, we decided to air this again on our last show.
Whether it was actually Cheryl Gould making that comment might be open to question because of this monkey wrench I must now toss: Schechner stated during the final broadcast that it was the third time they showed the piece:
In some families, when they gather for a big event, one of the elders makes a speech. Other families, they have a big argument. This family, we look at our favorite piece of television. We're about to show it for the third time. It's probably because, in ways words really don't deal with properly, we see some of our hopes in this piece, and what we hope to do here. Senior producer Cheryl Gould and Matty Powers put it together. Okay, the family's together. All the kids, even the loud cousins from out of state, have quieted down. Watch the pictures...listen to the music.
Don't yell or hit, I'm only the messenger. Nesmith, Christie, two times, three times. Who has the better memory? Well, I say it's Christie and three times, but it doesn't matter in the end, because it's a lovely arrangement of music and footage. Just watch and listen.

About halfway through the final program, Schechner introduced editor Pat Trese:

One of the job titles here is editor. It means writing and cutting pieces. Pat Trese's got that job, or, that's what they pay him for. And for the past seventeen months, part of the job has been writing and editing sports. We call it "sportstalk." They are the only words that Linda and I speak that we don't write ourselves. But Pat's real job here is to be wise. Every newsroom needs such a person, but few are so lucky as we. Pat's got some things to say about sports, so tonight, instead of a sports feature, we feature Pat.
Trese:
It all began, as Ted Baxter once said, in a little 50,000 watt NBC radio station in Cleveland, Ohio. I turned twenty-one and got a job writing for the late Tom Manning, the dean of the nation's sportscasters. Tom had started out announcing the starting lineups for the Indians at League Park with a megaphone. Later, he was second man to Graham McNamee for the first coast-to-coast radio broadcasts of the World Series and the Rose Bowl. That's the man who taught me to write sportstalk, one of the very first in the business.

He taught me some other things about sports, too. That, despite what the modern sportstalkers tell you, winning isn't everything. If Billy Martin's job is up for grabs tonight, it's because the Yankees finished third, not first, this year. And if amateur athletes are in trouble for using steroids, it's because they've been told that there's no other place but first place, and if you don't win the gold medal, you're nothing at all.

That was not the sportstalk message of the man who trained me, or of his contemporary and friend, Grantland Rice. And if their message seems corny in this age of superdomes and interminable playing seasons and million dollar deals and cocaine busts and labor-management disputes, it does not seem corny here, not tonight and not on this team. For when the one great scorer comes to write against your name, he marks not that you won or lost, but how you played the game. That was the message of Grantland Rice. And there is this to say about Overnight: It's the only place I can recite those lines with a straight face.

Later, Schechner gave his final words:
Time for last words, for the last time. My turn first.

Two important things happened here. One, it seems clear that you there and we here broke the barrier of the medium that connects us. We involved each other in the ideas that were this program. We showed there is more than one way to send and receive the news. The experiment succeeded. Will the technique spread? Let us all hope.

Well, that's business. Let's talk about life. We were not afraid of each other's successes in here. When one of us grew, it did not mean that another had to shrink. There was plenty of room. The producers, editors, researchers, technicians behind me and in a bunch of rooms on other floors and in other cities were the sinew of what went on here. It is on their wings that this show flew, and together we went higher than any one of us could have reached alone. And our work was multiplied by a lot of things: love, respect, wisecracks, irreverence, bad and good taste, and a fair share of wisdom.

It was a news show. It was a high time. It was one hell of a ride.

Ellerbee brought down the curtain this way:

Before we leave, thank you. Thank you for the more than ten thousand letters, telegrams, and calls. And for the toys, flowers, books, records, songs about Overnight, and the money, which we sent back. What you said we take with us.

I think that it is not as important that NBC took this program off the air as it is that NBC put this program on the air. That was something. We go smiling.

The final quote is from Mark Twain, discussing the young missionary who went out among the cannibals. Said Twain: "They listened with the greatest of interest to everything he had to say. And then they ate him."

This is the three hundred sixty-seventh edition of Overnight. There are no more.

And so it goes.

Listen to Linda Ellerbee (194k WAV, 11kHz/mono/8 bit, 0:18)

During the final credits, after "It Was Just One of Those Things" finished, the final verse of "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" was heard, sung by the cast of the Mary Tyler Moore Show. MTM's last episode featured the cancellation of the news program. Grant Tinker, at one time Moore's husband, was the chairman of NBC when Overnight was cancelled.

Just before fade to black, they showed a close-up of several of the toys viewers had sent in during the final days. (Linda Ellerbee always had a small duck on her desk, hence the deluge of animals and wind-up robots and such, and hence her present company's name: Lucky Duck Productions.) Smack dab in the middle, to my surprise, was a walking 6" tall wind-up signboard man quite familiar to me:

It wasn't a huge surprise, though. Earlier in the last week, on the night they received my package, they put the signboard man at the front of the anchor desk, next to Ellerbee's lucky duck, and it changed positions a few times during commercial breaks:

I don't think I could have asked for a nicer "thank you." Thanks to the wonders of modern technology and also to the fact that I'm a lazy bum and never purge old word processing documents, I can now reveal to you what the signs on the front and back of the little guy said:

                                         WITH SPECIAL THANKS TO
          BRAVO,
                                     Linda Ellerbee    Bill Schechner
        OVERNIGHT,                            Lloyd Dobyns

          BRAVO!                     Deborah Johnson   Cheryl Gould
                                     Gerald Polikoff   Marvin Einhorn
                                     Peter Basil       Russ Ross
                                     David Levens      Truus Bos
                                     Cathy Porter      Darrell Strong
         ENCORE,                     Philip Wasserman  Daniel Webster
                                     Patrick Trese     Dave Berg
         ENCORE!                     Katherine Field   Cynthia Brush
                                     Kimberly McCarthy Debra Pettit
                                     Roberto Soto      Avrom Zaritsky
          From                       Neal Baker        Ellen Harris
     constant viewer                 Hope Chodosh      Patricia Lewis
       Mike Harney                   Piera DiMichelle  Jered Dawaliby
                                     Joyce Hurley      David Herz
                                     Frank O'Shea      Vance Babb

                                                - et al -

Overnight's final broadcast was in the early morning hours of Saturday, December 3, 1983. Thus, for this constant viewer, began a very long winter of broadcast news discontent.

In 1984, Overnight was posthumously honored with an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University award for excellence in journalism. The jury said it was "conceivably the best-written and most intelligent television news anywhere."

"We tried to do the news without frills, without fluffy hairdos, without graphics. It does say something about our business that is not very pretty. It didn't matter how good the show was. What counted was money."
- Linda Ellerbee

Postscript:

As I review this appreciation while updating it in early 1997, some months after the rescue of Mystery Science Theater 3000 -- due in no small part to a very organized effort by thousands of people who liked the show -- I have to wonder if Overnight might have survived if the Internet were as ubiquitous in 1983 as it is now. Just think of the increase in support and press the show could have and almost certainly would have received. Ah, well...c'est la mort.

Once every year or two, I review my tapes of the final week of Overnight, marvel at its style and substance once again, and am not surprised in the slightest that I miss it just as much as the first week it was off the air. The news, of course, is old, but the energy and intelligence that was Overnight shines through brightly.

Second postscript, April 1998:

Good golly. Something I never expected has happened: All of the principals of Overnight have now seen this appreciation. In the space of about ten days, I've heard from anchors Linda Ellerbee, Lloyd Dobyns, and Bill Schechner, as well as Herb Dudnick, inventor of the insides of Overnight. Linda visited this page first and advised the rest of the folks by e-mail. They all wrote to me and had the most magnanimous comments. They all made me feel rather proud of my small effort. Bill Schechner even generously corrected the name of the singer of "Beyond the Blue Horizon" for me. (It was "the erstwhile Monkee," Michael Nesmith, not Lou Christie.) I'm quite glad that the inventors of Overnight now know that their efforts of fifteen years ago are remembered and appreciated, and, what's more, they're still having a positive effect out here.


Linda Ellerbee and Bill Schechner


Listen to the closing theme (1Mb WAV, 11kHz/mono/8 bit, 1:37)

See all eighty of the crew of Overnight (seven images of about 80K each)

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Entire contents © 1995-2003 by Mike Harney. World rights reserved. Steve Allen, this means you.