[23 April 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Insomnia sucks. The inability to sleep, the helplessness one feels from being incapable of rest remains one of the more unnerving human conditions. Of course, when most people complain of sleeplessness, it’s usually an exaggeration of a common personal problem. None of us get enough shuteye. We work ourselves into a fiscal froth, leveraging and mortgaging our individual peace away, and then spend our supposed downtime fretting over how we will ever get it back. Or worse, we waste countless seconds with the Sandman over internal conversations, imagined to-do lists, and the growing realization that all the day’s accomplishments fail to make up for the mountain of work you face come a scant four to six hours from now.
This wasn’t always the case. Back in the good old days, the salad years of society’s formative phase, people had a hard time suffering from a lack of slumber. Since life was much harder, more cutthroat and uncompromising, the struggles of existence easily translated into a good night’s kip. Heck, even if you had to jumpstart the process with a few cordials or a fifth or two of scotch, you had earned the right to drown your conscious state. As the old Union slogan said, “eight hours of work, eight hours or rest, and eight hours for what we will”. Today, there are no such simple divides. Job, home, family, friends, plans and problems tend to congeal into an oversized tablet of No-Doze, a cruel caffeine buzz that not amount of Ambien can appease.
Is there a cure a diversion one can employ to help the sleepless time pass by less painfully? Oddly enough, the answer is yes, and it’s the same today as it was decades before: television. The boob tube has been known to be both panacea and placebo, a cathode ray relaxer and an attention span enabler. Yet even as the idiot box aided in amplifying the movement of the big hand around the clock face, choices remained incredibly limited. No one expected to learn anything by staying up to all hours. All of that changed, if only for 18 amazing months back in ‘82 and ‘83. It was during this time that NBC decided to experiment with an early morning news broadcast, one that would hopefully hook the already active viewers of shows like Late Night with David Letterman. Betting on the desire of the insomnia-plagued demographic to be further entertained and informed, NBC News Overnight was born.
Now, before cable conspired with infomercials to take television out of the nightly sign-off dark ages, broadcasters believed that college students, the unemployable, late shift workers and the psychosomatically ill were the only ones wanting after hours broadcasts. And they had a point. For a populace that still believed midnight meant the end of the day, that meant watching Johnny Carson jostle with celebrities was the height of post-bedtime self-indulgence. The concept of something post-Tonight Show but pre-Today seemed sacrilegious. But as the ‘60s slid into the ‘70s, networks took another look at the bottom line landscape, and seeing the amount of money that could be made, they decided to explore the Witching Hour dynamic.
When shows like Tomorrow (with the inimitable Tom Synder) and Letterman’s Late Night scored significantly, the suits – and NBC News President Reuven Frank – saw another opportunity to expand their exposure. Hiring two solid players in the NBC News talent pool – former Weekend correspondents Linda Ellerbee and Lloyd Dobyns – and giving them a specific, special mandate (bring intelligence and “the visual” back to TV news), Overnight hit the airwaves in July of 1982. It hoped to be unlike any news program currently airing. It surpassed that status within the first few weeks.
Overnight was indeed different. It was the first attempt at quasi-interactive media. No, Ellerbee and Dobyns didn’t field questions from callers, or deal with some manner of technological magic meant to make the viewer seem involved. No, what Ellerbee and Dobyns did which was to actually treat the audience like they had a brain. Better yet, they acted as if the person on the other side of the camera already understood the issues at hand. They gave them credit for being involved, and bet on the fact that they would instantly tune into the way in which their program would present said point of view. Overnight was not sullied by sensationalism or hindered by hype. Instead, it took the days events, looked around the world for other significant stories, located a few human interest pieces to help fill the time, and then offered it all in complete sentences and whole, fully-formed thoughts.
For Overnight, it was always a question of perspective. Most nightly newscasts, driven by ratings and the desire to scoop the competition, were guilty of boiling the important data of the day into easily digestible sound bites – two to three minute highlight reels that acted as a kind of Cliff’s Notes for information. Of course, editorial concerns also trumped what was televised, since slipping in popularity meant losing valuable audience members and pre-determined demographics. That would result in lower Nielsen numbers, smaller ad revenue, and bigger headaches for the Board of Directors come stockholder time. So the 24 minutes that our anchorman was on the air was so micromanaged and manipulated that if the audience even remotely understood, let alone learned, anything from the broadcast, it was ‘win-win’ on both sides.
For Ellerbee and Dobyns, such an approach was appalling. To them, stories needed substance. They required depth and further discussion. An item that may have earned only 90 seconds on the dinnertime telecast may get ten minutes on Overnight. Instead of merely mentioning some manner of trouble in the Middle East, or hinting at problems in South America or India, Overnight actually presented television feed from these areas. The program would tap into the BBC, explore regional network news programs, and bring in the translators when English became unavailable. While some could call this gimmicky, it was merely standard operating procedure. The only way to understand a story, at least according to these intrepid reporters, was to see how it was being discussed in the areas where it was actually happening. A Western view would always be filtered, and thus flawed.
But this conceit didn’t just apply to foreign features. Overnight also combed the local US media for its own unique and frequently idiosyncratic takes on the events occurring in their neck of the unknown woods. It could be something as simple as the coverage of a major snowstorm or devastating tornado. It often centered on something as silly as obscure laws, oddball politicians, or junior rodeo daredevils. Indeed, what Overnight focused on was what all the major networks avoided (and remember, CNN was just getting its footing in the pay TV marketplace). It recognized that people had their own interests, problems, passions and concerns, and it tried to tap into those each and every night. And even if your particular position wasn’t being forwarded, or you failed to see yourself in a particular story, you could bet that Overnight shared a similar sensibility – and sense of humor – as you did.
Ellerby & Schechner
Oh yes, Overnight was funny, even wildly satiric at times. Ellerbee was especially adept at deflating the most over-exaggerated situation with a shift of her eyebrow and a carefully created put down. Writing was prized as much as imagery on the program, and all three hosts (Bill Schechner took over in January of ‘83 when Dobyns left to pursue other interests) were amazing wordsmiths. Dobyns created a kind of informational slow burn, able to take a story from start to finish like a film director drives a narrative. Schechner, on the other hand, was the comedian of the company, a personality formed out of bad puns, obvious riffs, and frequent forays into the silly. But it was Ellerbee who held it all together; an intelligent female voice that never allowed her gender to effect her jibes. She was a poet and a complainer, a realist and a romantic. Infusing all these elements into her acerbic, biting commentaries, she came across as both smart and sensible, turning phrases as readily as she turned convention.
There was nothing conformist about Overnight. It could spend a whole show on nuclear winter, or wonder how the people of Portugal view their country’s political position in the world. It would celebrate the annual West Virginia Goat Pageant and then turn around and feature some backstage scandal at the Miss Universe contest. Juxtaposition was everything for a show like Overnight, part of the strategy to bring the “TV” back into TV news. v Video Journals would highlight the changing landscape of suburban America, while concealed cameras in a stadium would underscore the passion and pain of a typical afternoon at the ball game.
When combined together – thoughts, words, and images – Overnight stood as a medium masterwork, a show that single-handedly wanted to alter the way people got their news. Naturally, it didn’t last. Low ratings and a lack of support from other divisions within the network killed the show (Reuven Frank left the company a year later), and in December of ‘83, Ellerbee and Schechner said their final goodbyes. As she did at the end of the previous 367 shows, the anchor signed off with her familiar catchphrase, “and so it goes”. A better way of saying goodbye, according to its creator, Ellerbee never meant it as an actual sign off. Instead, she used the statement as an indication of something much more significant. Life was what was “going” on, and in the reporters considered opinion, it would continue long after she, or any other journalist, stopped paying attention to it.
Of course, there were the usual petitions to bring the show back, and Ellerbee parlayed her sudden celebrity into a wildly successful book (1988’s And So It Goes). She then went on to stints with Today, ABC, CNN, PBS and Nickelodeon. Dobyns more or less disappeared, rumored for a while to be holed up in a cabin in North Carolina, spending his days chopping wood and writing his memoirs (said tome never arrived). As for Schechner, he stumbled around NBC in various reportage guises until returning to his home stomping grounds of San Francisco, where’s he’s been an on-air journalist for CBS 5 since 1993. All still recall their time as late night novelties with the fondest and warmest of memories. Even in recent interviews, Ellerbee has often noted that Overnight was the time in television that she loved the best. It gave her the most freedom to indulge in what she really loved doing – writing and producing. The fame facet was just a necessary evil to get to the good stuff.
Today, nothing as remotely inventive or unique as Overnight exists. The vast wasteland that Marshall McLuhan so vehemently decried has gotten even more arid; endless tabloid takes on relatively pointless subjects continuously looping between 24 hour stations set up for same. Look beyond the so-called news and all you’ll find are stations re-airing their prime time fodder, half hour advertisements promising everything with little or no effort, and films that would make the old school Late, Late, Late Show blush in b-movie shame. Unless you count the repeat broadcast of Keith Olbermann’s Countdown (the closest thing to an Overnight in this day and age), you’ll be hard pressed to find something salient once the clock strikes midnight.
So now, more than ever, insomnia really sucks. Evenings of endless tossing and turning no longer have the sanctuary of Ellerbee’s cool, cocky insights or Dobyns’ delicate dramatics. They lack the local flare of a Ukrainian pastry eating competition or an eight minute piece on the lasting legacy of Lady Bird Johnson’s Operation Wildflower roadside beautification project. Alongside Schechner’s frequent funny business, and the obvious outsider stance, what Overnight could bring to the table was this sense of connection. Ellerbee and company strove to include the audience as much as possible, making their hour of involvement feel like a visit from a very wise, very witty, very worldly friend. While it might not have healed a restless night of uneasy sleep, it sure made consciousness seem that much more manageable.