Let's see if I've got this straight: CNN hires Linda Ellerbee, and less than a week later CNN news anchor Mary Alice Williams moves to NBC to take the place of Connie Chung, who has moved to CBS, which is still smarting from the loss of Diane Sawyer to ABC, a defection that is seen as a pay-back for the way CBS lured Kathleen Sullivan away from ABC last year.
Somebody must have turned off the music, and all of the female TV journalists are scrambling to find a new anchor chair.Sawyer seemed to initiate the recent outbreak of channel-hopping when she left her high profile spot on "60 Minutes" for an even higher profile job in prime time, with ABC's Sam Donaldson as her co-host. Then Ellerbee hired on with CNN to produce commentaries for the all-news network three times a week (as opposed to the five they originally wanted her to do).
Then Chung decided to return to CBS to anchor yet another revamped edition of West 57th as well as the "CBS Sunday Evening News" (not to mention an occasional gig as Dan Rather's substitute). And that left a hole at NBC for a correspondent and co-anchor for an upcoming prime time information series, which Williams, reportedly after much soul-searching, decided to fill.
It almost sounds as if the value of women journalists is at an all-time high. And maybe it is. But according to one of the principles in this ongoing network melodrama, it's not because the demand is up. It's just that the supply is down.
"There are no more women on the air now than there were in 1975, when I broke into the business," Ellerbee said during a telephone interview Tuesday morning. "The networks haven't been developing new women - they just keep recycling the old ones, myself included."
Indeed, Ellerbee said she was approached by other networks to fill some of these recent openings caused by defections, although she declined to specify which networks had approached her.
"None of the networks have any bench strength among their women," she said, "so whenever there's an opening there's a real scramble to fill it. The short list for women journalists has gotten real short."
So why would Ellerbee, never one to shy away from the bright lights of network TV, opt for three brief commentaries a week on a cable news channel, as opposed to the prime time opportunities that were clearly available to her on the networks?
"I found that I liked being on CNN," she said, referring to her stint as a commentator on the channel during the 1988 campaign season. "The nice part is CNN lets me say what I think without first telling me what I think. I guess they know you can't depend on anybody to be wrong all the time."
She also likes the idea that she isn't actually working for CNN. They will pay her - and pay her well - for her thrice weekly appearances. But she isn't a CNN employee per se, and she'll have the freedom to continue work with her newspaper column, her freelance writing for various magazines and her own production company, Lucky Duck Productions.
"I don't want to be on anyone's payroll," Ellerbee said. "I just want to work for myself."
Which gives her control over the supply and the demand.