Tuesday, December 18, 2007

“Gordon Gekko, NBC News”

The New Voice of NBC News! NBC News anchor Brian Williams teased viewers with it the week before. And tonight’s broadcast featured the debut of a voice Williams said we’d recognize. Sure enough, popping up just over the John Williams theme song, you heard it: “From NBC world headquarters in New York, this is NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams.”

But this wasn’t the clarion voice of a veteran newsman or statesman or former president. This was the voice of a detective with an obsession. This was the voice of Gordon Gekko, the unscrupulous financier who launched a thousand subordinated-debt transactions in "Wall Street." This was the voice of Michael Douglas.

It was hard to wrap the mind around it, at first. In some ways it still is. And it signals a change for NBC News, though the meaning of that change – in reporting, public perception, communication style — is anyone’s guess.

We might have guessed something was up when, weeks earlier, Brian Williams made a big deal on the air about the new Nightly News set, acting for anything like a kid who couldn’t wait for Christmas to open the presents. That set was unveiled on a Monday, and included a monstrously high-tech desk, a beast of blue and brushed silver ready for double duty on the set of “Star Trek IX: Wrath of the Anchorman.”

Then there was his better-than-expected appearance on “Saturday Night Live,” which included a skit on changes to the Nightly News opening. Talk about foreshadowing.

You can hardly blame Douglas. It wouldn’t be the first time a network has linked its reputation to the sound of a voice. For years you couldn’t find daylight between CNN and the voice of James Earl Jones in the public mind. Douglas had the opportunity to hitch his voice’s wagon to something that is, finally, a service rather than a product. The information and entertainment that are at the core of NBC’s identity dovetail nicely with Douglas’ public persona.

It’s not such a stretch as, say, Gene Hackman’s longtime role as the voice of Lowe’s Home Improvement and Oppenheimer Funds, or Kevin Spacey representing the Honda Accord, or Jeff Bridges moving Duracell batteries (a year or so after a stint as the voice of Weyerhauser).

That’s the way NBC rolls. Score one for Douglas. But still. With the rollout of NBC’s new voice, we’re unconsciously invited to make a comparison between the signal broadcast television journalist of our time famed for a perfect signature line – “And that’s the way it is” — and an Oscar-winning actor-producer just as famous for another, more unfortunate avatar of the culture: “Greed is good.”

You wonder if NBC brass thought of that.

Williams apparently appealed to the actor's sense of history. "I appealed to Michael's sense of romance and sentimentality and his love of the industry," Williams told USA Today on Tuesday. "I called him and said, 'On top of all you've done as an actor, producer and Academy Award winner, this will mean a small slice of immortality in our industry. It also means wherever you are on Earth, at 6:30 p.m. Eastern time, you'll know your voice is on the air.'"

Clearly, at NBC … things have changed. The torch has been passed to a new generation of network executives smudging the already-blurry line between journalism and entertainment. “We’re in the boredom-killing business!” fictional network anchor Howard Beale screamed from the rooftops in “Network,” more than 30 years ago. Maybe Beale (or more properly “Network” author Paddy Chayefsky) was right.

Meanwhile, Rosie O’Donnell is said to be working on a little something for ABC.

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