While Critics Trample USA Today, Co-Host Bill Macatee Keeps a Rein on Things with Playmate India Allen

updated 10/03/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/03/1988 01:00AM

So maybe USA Today: The Television Show has debuted to some of the worst reviews ever accorded a program since My Mother the Car. "It doesn't fill a void," noted one critic, "it is one." But Bill Macatee, host of the show's Sports section, has a bigger concern on his mind, and it isn't the staff football pool. Sitting in his office at the program's Arlington, Va., studio, he wants his interviewer to look at a piece he did for NBC on a child with cystic fibrosis. Macatee, 32, is worried about coming off as just a sportscaster. His interests go way beyond sports, he says, and he wants people to know that he's a Sensitive, Caring Individual But, hey, that's sort of why executive producer Steve Friedman hired him in the first place. They worked together on the Today show, and Friedman knew Macatee could appeal not only to the sports fan but also to the arts 'n' leisure crowd. "He treats sports as a human thing and not a result-driven thing," says Friedman, meaning there's more to the subject than stats and scores.

"I've always been a little embarrassed by generalizations about sportscasters—you know, a guy who talks real loud in a plaid jacket," says Macatee. But humanity aside, there's something else that really separates him from the Howard Cosells of the world. Frankly, it's his fiancée, India Allen, 23, Playboy's 1988 Playmate of the Year. Come November, Macatee is marrying someone other guys fantasize about.

Macatee says, understandably, "My idea of a big evening is not sitting around watching ESPN." On the other hand, he and Allen aren't making the rounds on the D.C. party circuit. No, their notion of a big night is walking their pet beagle, Dave, near their two-bedroom town house in the Old Town section of Alexandria, Va. As they cozy up following a dessert of homemade apple pie, it soon becomes clear that Macatee and Allen are perfect for each other because they're both as down home as, yes, well, apple pie. Macatee practically apologizes for driving a $70,000 Porsche 911.

As for India (named to reflect her Algonquin Indian heritage), she's simply clad in cowboy boots, jeans and one of Bill's sweat shirts. Except for her Irish Claddagh engagement ring (she doesn't care for diamonds), the 5' 11", 130-lb. model isn't wearing a bit of jewelry or makeup. She hates getting dressed up and "refused to wear tight, trampy clothes to autograph sessions," she says. "I think I ruined it for a lot of fans. I'm the G-rated playmate." Not that she has hang-ups about her body. Once, on a dare, she strolled stark naked down Carmel beach right past bug-eyed Fourth of July picnickers. "I've lived most of my life in California," says Allen. "People don't think twice about nudity there."

Macatee didn't think twice about Allen's magazine exhibitionism either. Ditto his mother, Ann, who owns a real estate agency in El Paso. But Bill Sr., a retired Army lieutenant colonel, took a little longer to come around. "Now, son," he said at one point, "I want you to be happy, but, really, how is a girl like that going to settle down?"

After all, Bill and India had only known each other for a month when they became engaged last May. Macatee had left NBC in February and was living out in Beverly Hills writing a movie script about a disabled World War I soldier—it has since been sold to CBS—when he and India met through a friend of his. "I had no idea who he was," recalls Allen. "I thought because he was so good looking that he was your typical Hollywood male bimbo." Macatee, however, became immediately intrigued when he noticed she was carrying a catalog of farms for sale. She was going to buy one in Kentucky or Virginia and move there. Allen warmed up to him a week and a half later when he surprised her in her Chicago hotel with a bottle of champagne.

Macatee can be forgiven his persistence. He hadn't had a serious girlfriend in six years, he says, mostly because of work demands. Macatee first broke into broadcasting at 17, when a talk-radio station in El Paso hired him to host an afternoon call-in show. That might seem an unusual job for someone so young, but Macatee had been at it since he was 9, interviewing sisters Elizabeth and Rebecca with a gift tape recorder from his parents.

By the time he was 19, Bill felt ready for TV. He sent an audition tape to a station in Tyler, Texas, which hired him to anchor the weekday noon and weekend newscasts. By 21, he was sports director at a station in Beaumont, Texas, where, in 1978, he also completed his speech degree at Lamar University. At 23, he was making $60,000 a year as the sports anchor for ABC's Dallas station. Three years later he became the youngest sports anchor in NBC history when the network hired him to replace the Today-bound Bryant Gumbel.

Macatee doesn't miss NBC or New York. His life in the burbs, which includes owning a seven-acre Arabian horse farm in Brooke, Va., "sounds like Norman Rockwell gone wild," he says, "but this is what I love." Even the pounding that USA Today—the show—is taking in the press hasn't gotten him down. "I don't know if it has so much to do with my maturity as it has with being out front for the first time," says Macatee. "Everything else I've done, I've been pretty much insulated from. And now I'm on a show that's very visible and has unreal expectations because of its promotion. When criticism comes in, I have to be a man about it." So when a reviewer calls the show "so utterly dumb that it makes USA Today the newspaper look like The History of Calculus and Its Conceptual Development," Macatee just shrugs. "You don't see anybody here sending out résumés and saying, 'Oh, my God!' " he says. "We're here for the long haul."

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