There are broadcasting legends, and there is Sue Simmons. FishbowlNY caught up with the iconic anchorwoman for a rare one-on-one interview, as she was being named a Black Media Legend at the Plaza Hotel Friday.
Simmons left WNBC in June after more than three decades at the anchor desk. Three months earlier, word broke on what many considered an unthinkable story – Simmons would not get a contract extension.
“I already knew my contract was up and I got threatened with suspension,” Simmons says. “I didn’t say a word until after I left.”
Once Simmons’ future status was published it caused her nothing but angst.
“The last several months from March to June was pretty much a nightmare for me,” Simmons admits. “Because after you’ve worked with your teams and your friends for that long it’s very difficult to come to terms with the fact that it’s not going to be anymore.”
Simmons adds that there was no bitterness as she began the “farewell tour” at WNBC.
“How would you complain about 32 years at one job, in television, in New York City, and being part of the longest running anchor team in New York’s history?”
If it were her choice, Simmons says viewers would still be watching Chuck Scarborough and her each night.
“Part of me was hoping that. Unfortunately, I got mixed signals and I thought at the very end that I was going to stay,” Simmons says. “It turned out to be not true. People start talking; I just got the feeling that they had softened their position. So that was a bit of a jolt at the end.”
The feelings were so strong in the final weeks that emotions would get the best of her.
“I couldn’t talk about it without tearing up,” Simmons admits. “So, I’m just finally glad that’s over.”
Her good vibes at 30 Rock had dissipated in recent years after Comcast announced it was acquiring a controlling stake in NBCU in 2009, approved by the FCC in 2011.
“We started to see the handwriting on the wall as soon as we did a tremendous downsizing. We were not a newsroom anymore.”
Before Comcast took over, WNBC management created the “content center” for multiple platforms. Digital channel New York Nonstop was launched (recently changed to Cozi TV running classic TV programs. News 4 New York at 7 still airs each evening).
“The cutbacks were so severe that we knew that they would look at the people who made the most money to see where they could cut.”
Several reporters were shown the door. Most notably, longtime sports anchor Len Berman was let go after nearly a quarter-century.
“Our counterparts in Los Angeles were dropping one by one, so we kind of knew,” Simmons tells FishbowlNY. “We didn’t how they were going to do it, whether it was going to be one of us, or both of us [Scarborough] at the same time. But we talked about it.”
Since the Comcast takeover, however, WNBC brought back the 5pm news, added a noon newscast, expanded Sunday’s late newscast, hired 20 people, mostly in the news department, moved to a new studio, purchased four new trucks, new LiveU backpack units and brought back Chopper 4. “All these investments are making the station stronger and better able to compete in the market,” says a WNBC spokesperson.
But going back to 2008, Simmons recalls an executive saying they wanted to “phase her out” within two weeks. “Four, five years went by and then it started getting a little bit more pointed.”
While that chapter has concluded, Simmons hopes to write additional passages to her career. “I want to be on television in some way,” Simmons says. “I think I’ve had enough news. What else could I do? I don’t know. I have my life in front of me.”
Therefore, don’t expect Simmons to have a regular role on TV. “I’d rather be a talking head, be part of a panel.” She’s also planning to do voice-overs, and possibly head to the lecture circuit.
But she cautions, “I am lazy by nature, so my joy is in reading and watching television. I must keep myself busy so I don’t slip into that. It’s no good just laying around.”
FishbowlNY received countless, endearing comments since Sue’s departure. One stood out saying she was a master for her ability to take us from hard news to light-hearted stories flawlessly.
Simmons had serious spinal surgery in late 2010, missing more than two months. “I came within two weeks of being in a wheelchair.” Instead, she walks fine, without the benefit of a cane. Simmons is a 70-year-old who just happens to wear it incredibly well.
Since leaving WNBC, and even before, Simmons has been getting her fill of Hall of Fame inductions, legend labels, and lifetime achievement awards. Even with her resume that few could ever imagine, Simmons is humbled.
“I see the words, but I still have this tendency to say, ‘You talking to me?'”
Given women’s role in 1970’s broadcasting, let alone black women, Simmons had the plan to work for just 10 years in TV. Forty years later, she stands as one New York’s most famous anchors.
But from the beginning, there was always Chuck alongside Sue.
“In my mind before I got to New York, Chuck was the person I pinpointed that I wanted to work with,” Simmons recalls. “I was a little intimidated when I first started because he’d been here a long time.”
By her arrival in 1980, Scarborough was already a six-year veteran at Channel 4.
Their exquisite chemistry can’t be bought in a store or even taught in a school. It’s just innate. Sue, who refers to Chuck as her “TV husband,” shared experiences with each other like a married couple.
“I watched his kids grow up…Through his life I’ve been there for him and vice versa.”
That bond with Scarborough, obviously not just for the cameras, is intact.
“The camaraderie is what I miss,” Simmons says. “I had dinner with him last week. I’m having dinner with him next week. So we continue. We’re an anchor team at dinner.”
Chuck and Sue unquestionably touched viewers. One sampling, prior to her leaving WNBC, a FishbowlNY readers’ poll chose the tandem in a landslide as their all-team favorite team. They have spanned two generations of loyal fans.
She believes Scarborough, 69, the WNBC lead anchor since 1974, is staying put. “He will retire on his terms. I’m not sure the length of his contract now, but I think it’s about three years,” Simmons says.
She adds that her longtime, on-air partner has an option to walk away. “He’s doing this now, he loves the job, but also he doesn’t know what else to do,” Simmons says.
After such a long “Chuck and Sue” experience, he now sits alongside Shiba Russell, who was targeted to replace Simmons from day-one in 2011. Not surprisingly, Simmons was not asked to offer any help in selecting her successor.
“[It] comes from high above. I have no resentment, none whatsoever, toward Shiba,” Simmons says. “She didn’t hire herself. Someone hired her. It’s her show now. She has to work this all out.”
Simmons has mixed feelings about being replaced by another black woman. “The positive of it is that another black person is employed in television in a high-visible spot,” Simmons counters. “The negative of it for me is it looks like they’re trying to duplicate.
“And then when Chuck goes, we’ll all smile as they replace him with a blonde,” Simmons contends. “And I think I know who it is… Gus Rosendale.”
Rosendale is an occasional weekend anchor who fills in for Russell’s first deskmate at WNBC.
“David Ushery (right) deserves the job,” Simmons admits. “He’s been passed over any number of times, and I don’t have a clue why. He’s a very, very talented man.”
Ushery is Scarborough’s main back-up.
As for the veteran anchor, Scarborough confided in Simmons that between her exit and his daughter’s marriage, it was a tough year, “losing the two women he loves most.”
Part of the embracing of Sue is she’s a hometown girl. She is also beloved for being so real on the air, sometimes to the point of YouTube viral play. Who can forget her infamous 2008 cursing moment at Scarborough during a live promo before the 11 p.m. newscast?
“Early on when I was still a very scared, young reporter, I had a news director tell me that the best thing you can do for yourself is be yourself,” Simmons says. “I thought that’s a frightening thought because I’m a little out there. So I just did that, and you hope that more than 50 percent of the audience likes it.”
As such a beloved broadcaster, Simmons reminds us of Johnny Carson, who during his final Tonight Show after 30 years said: “I hope when I find something that I want to do and I think you will like, and come back, that you will be as gracious inviting me into your home as you have been.”
“I don’t want to work just to be working because then I drone,” Simmons says. “I want to do something that I can be excited about.” The lifelong Mets fan is keeping doors open to sports or even the entertainment field.
Lest we forget, Simmons’ acting prowess. Months after her rude awakening from NBC, she was on the network playing herself in the two-part season premiere of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Clearly, she struck a chord with the majority of New Yorkers, building a love affair with the anchor great. She does recognize that, especially since last summer.
“I wear out the crosstown 57th Street bus. And the first time I got on there a woman sat next to me and asked what I was going to do. The next day it was in the Daily News – “Sue Simmons Spotted on a Crosstown Bus.”
“What am I Greta Garbo?” Simmons laughs.
There was another time on the bus that didn’t make the papers, but did warm her heart to no end. The touching moment involved a person next to Simmons saying “I miss you.” That led to someone across the aisle adding the sentiment.
“It went all the way back through the bus,” Simmons says. “I didn’t know anybody had recognized me. As I stood up to leave there was applause.” She cherishes the fans and the way they make her feel.
“It feels comforting; It feels warm. It makes me smile,” Simmons admits. “It makes me know that if I’m in the house in a funk, all I have to do is go outside, and somebody will smile and say, ‘Hey!'”