NBC's 'Overnight': a hard news show for night owls

One of television's best news programs is also its newest.

NBC News Overnight (NBC, Monday through Thursday, 1:30 a.m.-2:30 a.m., Fridays, 2 a.m.-3 a.m.), which premiered only six weeks ago with Linda Ellerbee and Lloyd Dobyns as co-anchors, is being hailed as ''sassy . . . classy . . . witty . . . literate'' by critics. In addition, and most important, it is solidly informative without being pompous.

Already it has won about a million and a half regular viewers and on most mornings all advertising space has been sold out. News buffs are already wondering whether Reuven Frank, NBC News president, will soon give up on the apparently losing team of Mudd and Brokaw on the Evening News and bring in Lloyd and Linda as replacements.

Both Linda and Lloyd have solid news backgrounds - Linda has been an NBC News correspondent since 1975 while Lloyd has been at NBC News since 1969.

I chatted with both anchors recently at Hurley's Restaurant, a symbol of determination in the Rockefeller Center area. (The owner refused to sell the building to make room for the complex, and Rockefeller Center had to be built around it.) Ellerbee and Dobyns are just as determined about ''Overnight'' and about making it a success. But on their own terms. They insist they will never become a ''happy talk'' news couple.

Is that why they sit at desks so far apart on screen? A viewer might wonder if they are following the tradition of co-anchor rivalry.

''We write our own part of the show and those are really work desks. We have no intention of chatting with each other - that's not our idea of what news is, '' says Linda.

''We are doing the show for whoever is out there watching. Usually we have been working side by side since 7 p.m., so there is no reason for me to tell the news to Linda because she already knows,'' adds Lloyd. ''And as to rivalry, we are probably the only co-anchors in TV who are also best friends. We've shared an office at NBC since 1979.''

Who is out there watching?

Linda shrugs. ''We know a few of our viewers. Cops in the station and firemen in firehouses, show business people, people who get off work and don't have any other outlet for news, third-shift workers . . . . Beyond that we just don't know, but it seems there are a lot more people than we thought who are just not asleep.''

The two newscasters, though, will have plenty of company during their early morning hours. In October ABC plans a similar program at midnight following ''Nightline''; CBS is planning one from 2 a.m. to 7 a.m.; already NBC has ''Early Today'' on the air at 6:30 a.m. (6 a.m. in some areas); and ABC has countered with a 6 a.m.-7 a.m. headline news show before ''Good Morning America.''

In addition there is on cable the 24-hour Cable News Network with its spinoff CNN2, plus the Westinghouse-ABC Video Satellite News Channel. Is it possible that whereas in the past we have thought that TV is basically entertainment interrupted occasionally by news it may be that it will become news interrupted occasionally by entertainment?

Lloyd shakes his head. ''I don't think so. Let's face it, I'll make you a bet that if you go to Los Angeles or Chicago you will find that an old movie is beating us. Or a rerun of ''Lucy'' or ''M*A*S*H.'' People want to be entertained.

''A man or a woman comes home after working third shift with a cranky boss, machinery that didn't work, finds that the rent is overdue, the baby is crying. They don't want to watch news - they want escape from reality. There will always be a place for entertainment TV - we just believe there is a lot more place for news than there has been in the past. And we are providing it.''

Both anchors bristle at any suggestion that their news is on the soft side. Since they write everything they say, do they write in some special way for the late-night audiences? ''Overnight,'' to this critic, seems to be what a one-hour evening news show would look like.

"We are writing exactly the way we would for the 7 o'clock ews,'if!they would allow us to. Except that we have an hour while they only have a half hour. They have a committee going over every word. We have only our producer,'' says Linda. ''We resent people saying 'Overnight' is light and fluffy. They make the mistake that you have to be solemn to be serious. We are a very serious show, but we have a sense of humor and we like to show that, too.

''We don't underestimate the intelligence of our audience. If they're watching at 1:30 a.m. they must really be interested in the news.

''Isn't it inevitable that NBC will want to extend 'Overnight' sooner or later to join up with the 'Early Today' show?

''If that's what the network wants, fine. But there's no way that we could extend this show through the night,'' says Lloyd.

''There are a number of ways NBC could do it. They could repeat the hour or have two other people come in and do more. But you are talking to two people who don't want to come in and do more than an hour. After all, we have a lot of writing to do,'' explains Linda.

Lloyd and Linda are especially proud of the fact that their format permits them to utilize the work of correspondents all over the country as well as foreign reports such as, for instance, a BBC report on Lebanon. Offbeat and sometimes softer news runs under the segment heading of ''Not Ready For Prime Time News.''

They manage to carry on this double interview without stumbling over each other's words, even when one contradicts the other, (and energetic Linda does this often to the more laconic Lloyd). It all seems to be in the spirit of fun and games . . . and work.

Suddenly we are interrupted by a young woman who stops at our booth. ''I don't want to interrupt,'' she says haltingly, ''but I just want to tell you both that I enjoy your show so much. I have stopped watching the early news because I can't stand it any more. I'm a late night person anyway. Your show is so well written. It's coherent, intelligent and it's got humor. I think you are both wonderful.''

Linda blushes just a bit. ''That's a wonderful interruption,'' she says.

Lloyd smiles. ''Thank you. We'll send the check in the morning,'' he says jokingly.

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