What the -- was Sue thinking?

WNBC news anchor Sue Simmons dropped an expletive on startled viewers Monday night, leaving thousands gasping and probably the same number laughing. But in the wake of one of the biggest on-air gaffes in Channel 4 history, a question was left hanging: What was she thinking?

And this one too: Will she survive?

Her next word: Sorry

An industry source confirmed yesterday that Simmons directed the expletive at her longtime co-anchor Chuck Scarborough, seated to her left when the "tease" for the 11 p.m. news aired just after 10:30; viewers couldn't see his reaction because a shot of a cruise ship was on screen when Simmons yelled, "What the -- are you doing?" at him.

He returned solo to the air about 20 minutes later for another tease, although both anchors were on the 11 p.m. broadcast, where Simmons apologized. On yesterday's 5 p.m. newscast, Simmons made no mention of the day's most talked-about story.

Sources also added yesterday that Simmons had believed the "tease" - an industry term for a brief cut-in that promotes a later broadcast - was being taped. Scarborough, who looked distracted during the segment, also appeared as if they were in a rehearsal.

"It was supposed to be a pre-taped piece and wound up live," one source said. "She didn't know it was live and blurted that out." Industry sources say that Scarborough may have missed a cue, prompting Simmons' outburst.

An ill-timed utterance

New York TV stations have what they call "zero tolerance" for on-air expletives, but it was unclear yesterday whether Simmons would be disciplined or fired. What is more obvious, however, is that she stumbled at the worst possible time. Channel 4 is in the midst of near-draconian cutbacks after a new management team took over within the last month. There have been widespread reports in recent weeks that Channel 4 is looking to cut expensive anchor talent, and after Scarborough - believed to be the highest-paid local anchor in the country - Simmons is second highest on the Channel 4 food chain.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Channel 4's behind-the-scene upheavals have occasionally leaked out on air, too. In the midst of a mistake-plagued 7 p.m. broadcast a few weeks ago, the usually implacable Scarborough followed up a piece about financial woes with an angry aside that perhaps Channel 4 was suffering financial travails of its own.

Observers yesterday said Simmons may have caught a break because the gaffe occurred well after 10 p.m., or outside what's considered the FCC's so-called "safe harbor period" for objectionable content from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Arthur Chi'en, a onetime street reporter for WCBS/2 and now with WPIX/11, uttered the same word during an early morning broadcast for Channel 2 almost exactly three years ago and was fired by the station. However, an arbitrator later ruled that the station had no basis for the termination.

Appearances do count

Simmons' image may be Channel 4's biggest concern. For nearly 30 years, she has been a veritable portrait of amiability - mischievous, occasionally puckish, though early in her run, prone to on-air gaffes. Viewers saw, or rather heard, a different Simmons Monday night: raw, angry and profane. A station source adds, however, that she and Scarborough have been friends for years and frequently banter off-air.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

On-air cursing "absolutely happens once a year somewhere and usually it's a situation like this, where something is being recorded and the wrong version is cued up and gets on the air," says Rick Gevers, president of an Indiana-based company that represents anchors and on-air news reporters. "But to someone with her track record? She's not a 23- year-old just out of college."

Say what!?

2003: During NBC's Golden Globes telecast, Bono used an expletive. The FCC eventually ruled that the outburst was indecent but did not fine NBC or its affiliates.

2005: Reporter Arthur Chi'en was fired by a CBS station in New York after hurling an obscenity during a live shot at a pair of hecklers.

January 2008: Diane Keaton uses an expletive on "Good Morning America."

advertisement | advertise on newsday

February 2008: Jane Fonda uses an expletive, in discussing the play, "The Vagina Monologues."

Monday: Sue Simmons yells "what the -- are you doing," reportedly to co-anchor Chuck Scarborough.