Duck, duck, HBO!

Linda Ellerbee renews contract with Nickelodeon, makes a deal with HBO

It would be easy to assume that the highly acclaimed NBC News Overnight of the early '80s was the high point in Linda Ellerbee's career, but no, merely second or third. "Nick News would probably lead that list," says Ellerbee.

Nick News, a weekly news program for children currently in its ninth season on Nickelodeon, is a creation of Lucky Duck Productions, co-founded by Ellerbee, 55, and her partner, Rolfe Tessem. Last month, Nickelodeon signed another three-year contract for the half-hour Sunday-night program that, in a recent showing, covered everything from the popularity of Harry Potter novels to saving buffalo on the Western range. The show gives her good vibes: "You have no idea the number of parents that come up to me and say, 'Thank you so much.'.I like that.''

Her company also has produced several Intimate Portraits for Lifetime, Headliners and Legends for MSNBC, and specials for MTV and the broadcast networks.

"Had we known [Lucky Duck Productions] was going to be so successful, we might have given it a serious name," says Ellerbee, who is looking to double the $12 million operation and 50-person staff next year. It has a deal with HBO to develop a multipart dramatic series on the women's movement during the '60s and '70s.

Not bad for a Texas-small-town-born college dropout whose break into broadcast news came accidentally when, as a young print reporter, she inadvertently sent an opinionated personal letter over the AP wires. She was fired immediately, but a Houston television news director saw the offending letter, admired her writing and started her career in television.

Ellerbee, who will executive-produce the HBO series along with Diane Keaton and Whoopi Goldberg, says she hopes to have it in production later this year. Mum's the word on who will star, but, she says, "every A-list actress in Hollywood that we have spoken with has said 'I want to be a part of this.'"

She spent nearly 12 years with NBC as a political correspondent and co-host of award-winning, but ratings-deprived, newsmagazines Weekend and Overnight and then ABC's Our World, before she called it quits. "There are so many clichés about people on television," says former NBC President Reuven Frank. "They're indistinguishable from each other. The ones who succeed are not like any of the others. I thought she had a style."

In 1989, with Tessem and a PBS deal to produce a documentary on American eating habits, Lucky Duck Productions was off the ground, but it soon hit turbulence. Ellerbee was forced to make the self-sacrificing move of starring in a Maxwell House coffee commercial to keep the staff. "I took a lot of flack for that," she says, but it was the least offensive money-raising option she had. That and a bout with breast cancer could have sidelined Ellerbee. But a double mastectomy in the early '90s saved her life, and she made breast-cancer research a cause she still champions today.

"I do not have to be the richest woman in television," says Ellerbee, "I do have to be able to look at myself in the mirror on the way to work." A collection of awards in her office is testament to that: three Emmys, two DuPonts and three Peabodys, including one for her coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal for Nick News. Judges wrote that, "in explaining the issues to kids, she explained them better to grown-ups than any other news outlet."

The feisty-reporter-turned-successful- executive-producer has written a series of children's books, called Get Real, about a sixth-grade girl reporter. Last month, she completed a two-week off-Broadway stint in Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues, a frank discussion about female sexuality that casts an ever-changing trio of stars, including Calista Flockhart, Kirstie Alley and Rita Moreno.

That and the speaking tours keep her pretty busy. She splits her personal time between her Manhattan townhouse and Massachusetts country home. "I do not have an answering machine on my home phone, because I do not want to walk into my home and see a bunch of blinking lights and know that 90% of them are work messages."