Monday, January 04, 2010

Uncle Walter Signs Off

Almost six months after his death, Walter Cronkite has finally "signed off" from his last broadcasting gig.

The legendary news anchor has been replaced as the off-camera voice that introduces Katie Couric at the start of the "CBS Evening News." His replacement? Actor Morgan Freeman, who began handling those duties with tonight's broadcast.

According to Sean McManus, President of CBS News and Sports, the time seemed right for a change. As he told the Associated Press:

"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."

McManus also said that using Freeman gives the network flexibility to record different introductions when Couric is on assignment or has special reports. Before signing Mr. Freeman, the job was handled by a CBS announcer.

So, why not keep using the announcer? Sadly, staff announcers are a dying breed at the networks. During the early 1960s, for example, ABC-TV had 27 announcers based in New York City. CBS and NBC had announcing staffs of similar size; in those days of live television, they handled network breaks, commercials, entertainment programs and even breaking news. Television buffs will recall that the first bulletin on the Kennedy assassination wasn't delivered by Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley or David Brinkley. It was read by Don Pardo (of Saturday Night Live fame) who was on duty at NBC on that fateful afternoon.

Almost fifty years later, ABC has a total of two staff announcers--if you include Bill Rice, the long-time voice of the network's evening news program. But technically, Mr. Rice is no longer a full-time network employee; he became a free-lancer in 2007 after 45 years at the network. In an era of voice "imaging," home recording studios and ISDN lines, it's easier--and often, cheaper--for broadcasters to out-source announcing jobs.

Unless, of course, you decide to hire a celebrity to introduce your evening news anchor. CBS actually started the trend when it tapped Mr. Cronkite to voice the intro for the Couric version of the Evening News. NBC tried another variation on that theme, hiring actor Michael Douglas to perform the same duties for Brian Williams on Nightly News. Only ABC continued the tradition of using an announcer for the job, with Bill Rice still providing the introduction for World News with Charles Gibson. But when Charlie recently retired, ABC hired its own celebrity voice, Mike Rowe, host of "Dirty Jobs" on the Discovery Channel.

With Rowe's selection, Rice became the last of the breed--the last staff announcer who introduced a network evening news show. Despite years of stellar service, he just didn't have enough star power to hang onto the job. And sadly, that's now an important factor in the nightly news equation. As the networks battle for a shrinking evening news audience, they're looking for anything that might generate a little buzz, or bring in a few more eyeballs. And sure enough, there were several stories in the MSM about CBS's selection of Mr. Freeman to replace Walter Cronkite.

There's only one problem. Morgan Freeman is a fine actor and a competent narrator (March of the Penguins), and so is Michael Douglas. But as announcers for a network newscast...they are very good actors. Their introductions for the evening news are flat and listless, at best. We can only imagine how much CBS and NBC paid for their services.

Why are Freeman and Douglas such busts in these assignments? Because announcing requires a different set of skills than acting. Go to YouTube and listen to the intros for Cronkite's Evening News (handled primarily by Bob Hite, Sr.); various NBC news programs (voiced by Bill Hanrahan, Fred Facey and Howard Reig), and Bill Rice's work on for countless ABC newscasts. All are vastly superior to the "celebrity announcers" who now introduce Katie Couric, Brian Williams and Diane Sawyer.

Once upon a time, the job of an announcer was to set the right tone for the newscast, without calling attention to himself (or herself). Tom Brokaw once remarked that when he heard Howard Reig's introduction over the studio monitor, "I knew it was time to get serious and go to work." My, how times have changed.


Ed Rasimus said...

You make a good point but overlook the essential difference of today. The television show that Brian Williams, Katie Couric, et. al. air each week night is not news but entertainment. Therefore it is all too appropriate for Morgan Freeman, Michael Douglas, Gene Hackman, Sam Elliot or another mellifluous baritone to read the bounce du jour.

wbhist said...

Before Hite, Cronkite's main Evening News announcer was Harry Kramer (whose run with the program ended around early 1972). YouTube also has examples of Kramer's work, but primarily as opening announcer for coverage of space shots (i.e. the continuing Project Gemini: Two Weeks in Space reports from 1965). All the more impressive, Kramer's assignments were both Cronkite's Evening News and the soap opera The Edge of Night (the latter of which, after 1972, would be handled by another legendary CBS staff announcer who has since passed on, Hal Simms).