Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Morgan Freeman, VOG

“From CBS world headquarters in New York — this is the CBS Evening News, with Katie Couric.” We’ve heard that at or near what used to be called “the dinner hour” since Sept. 5, 2006. When Couric began the CBS News anchor gig, no doubt eager to establish her bona fides, she was the beneficiary of the voice of Walter Cronkite, who uttered that introduction from the beginning, setting a tone of gravitas and experience that Couric has been more than equal to, again from the beginning.

Even after Cronkite died on July 17, the network retained him as the CBS News VOG (for voice of God, denoting the flagship of the brand itself) — as much a nod to Cronkite’s long multigenerational reach on television news and the culture as to not having anyone else to replace him.

Or so we thought. The new broom of a new year (and for some a new decade) sweeps clean. That was clear on Monday night — the first of 2010 for the CBS news crew — when the voice of Morgan Freeman rang, Mississippi-clear, to announce the Tiffany Network Evening News.

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How to parse this ripple in the culture … you can resort to the Firsts School of Significance: Freeman (a pitchman for Visa) is the first African American VOG in American broadcast news (James Earl Jones, the longtime VOG of CNN, beat him in the cable space by years).

Freeman’s bourbon-and-honey voice cements an African American flava to a worldwide audience of news junkies. The VOG is part of the default experience, part of the singular identifier that establishes an identity in the public mind. For the first time at CBS News — home to VOGs Cronkite, Sevareid and Murrow! — a voice of color becomes that identifier.

There’s no way to know, of course, if CBS was that calculating. The statements from the network in advance of Monday’s change were more turn-the-page circumspect. '”As comforting as it is to look back on the great career that Walter had, we're looking forward now and we just felt it was the right time to make the move that at some point had to be made,” said CBS News and Sports President Sean McManus. '”This seemed like the appropriate time since Walter's passing to make the move.'”

It may have been just the matter of the right voice. NBC made the same kind of change in December 2007, when Oscar winner Michael Douglas became the VOG for the NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams. And setting aside Freeman’s pitchwork for Visa, his is a movie voice we’ve loved and recognized for a generation.

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Having portrayed everything from a terrifyingly vicious New York pimp (“Street Smart”) to the President of the United States (“Deep Impact”), Freeman already projects into the culture with the kind of ubiquity CBS could use to its advantage.

So despite the ratings that have firmly cemented CBS Evening News as last in viewers, Oscar winner Freeman’s investiture offers the network and viewers that little intangible, a moment of Hollywood before 23 minutes of news (much of it dispiriting), plus commercials (most of them TiVo’d into three-second mush). The broadcast evening news model needs every edge it can get.

Lysergic Asset hit it on Monday, at Gawker: “For a minute there I thought that Morgan Freeman would be replacing Katie Couric. You almost got me to watch TV news.”

Image credits: Freeman: Via CBS eye logo: © CBS Inc.

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