What Lester Holt's Ascension Means for NBC and Brian Williams

Ileane Rudolph

Sometimes the workhorse saves the day. At least that’s what Lester Holt has done for NBC Nightly News. The respected veteran newsman is bringing trust back to the anchor chair vacated by Brian Williams, who was put on unpaid leave in February for embellishing his experiences while on assignment. On June 18, Holt, who has helmed the show since February, was named permanent anchor of the program. Williams will begin a new role on MSNBC in mid-August, when his six-month suspension ends.

While some media critics and industry insiders voiced doubts that Holt, 56, had the star wattage necessary to fight off the surging ABC World News Tonight, hosted by 41-year-old David Muir, the two programs have been neck-and-neck in the ratings since Williams’s departure. ABC often wins the advertiser-coveted 25–54 demo, but NBC is tops with total number of viewers.

Andrew Tyndall, whose Tyndall Report analyzes network-news per­formances, predicts viewership could increase when NBC “puts considerable resources” into promoting Holt. (Tyndall also points out that, because Holt’s compensation is purportedly less than Williams’s $10 million annual salary, the profitability of Nightly News has improved.)

TODAY -- Pictured: (l-r) Lester Holt and Al Roker appear on the

Lester Holt and Al Roker appear on the "Today" show in October 2014.

Holt’s former bosses and colleagues are not surprised by his success. When asked about him, terms like “go-to guy” and, yes, “workhorse” are used. At NBC, Holt has been Williams’s permanent sub since 2013 while also reporting for and anchoring Dateline (since 2005), Weekend Nightly News (since 2007) and cohosting Weekend Today (since 2003). He started with the company as an anchor for MSNBC, where he earned the nickname “Iron Pants” because of his ability to sit for hours at the anchor desk during such national crises as 9/11 and the 2000 Bush-Gore presidential vote recount. He has also showed his lighter side, playing a version of himself on 30 Rock and hosting the Westminster Dog Show.

A born newsman, Holt’s first on-air reporting came in high school, when he created an internship for himself at a local radio station. After a college detour as a DJ for country radio, Holt began a 19-year run at several local CBS stations, all but one in the anchor chair.

Bill Kurtis, who worked with Holt for most of his 14 years at Chicago’s WBBM-TV, recalls when the young anchor arrived in 1986. “As young as he was, Lester had the mark of stardom,” says Kurtis, currently with NPR’s quiz show Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me. “He was the hardest-working anchor you’d ever see.”

Mark Effron, media consultant and journalism professor at William Patterson University in New Jersey, was MSNBC’s vice president of daytime and Holt’s boss in 2000. “He was always prepared and great on the air,” Effron says. “On cable, you’re sometimes on for hours and hours and anyone can make stupid comments, but Lester had a built-in ability to make a story understandable without any wild speculation.” With Holt as even-keeled behind the camera as in front, Effron recalls that his show was a magnet for producers, writers and reporters who wanted to work with him.

NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENTS -- Pictured: Brian Williams, Anchor

Brian Williams

Holt’s new job makes him TV’s first solo African-American nightly news anchor. (Max Robinson was part of a three-anchor team on ABC from 1978 to 1983.) “This is the one silver lining in the cloud surrounding Brian Williams,” says media ethicist Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute. “This is a really big deal as the news industry struggles with diversity.” Although it’s too early to determine whether more African-Americans will now watch Nightly News, McBride believes that audiences will be more likely to feel that Holt, and the newscast as a whole, will represent their community accurately.

Another game changer in Holt’s ascension could be the end of the superstar anchor. “The greatest value Holt brings is that he allows NBC News to extricate itself from the mentality that it needs a celebrity figurehead to showcase the quality of its journalism,” Tyndall says. “It is preferable for a news organization to promote its product on the basis of its content. Holt allows NBC News to be journalistically authentic.”

Viewers may accept Holt’s authenticity, but Williams has just begun the fight to regain his, starting with a June 19 interview on Today conducted by Matt Lauer. While still denying he “was trying to mislead people,” Williams admitted he “said things that weren’t true,” including the story that kicked off the accusations against him: his claim that he was on board a chopper that was hit by enemy fire in Iraq. “Looking back, it had to have been ego,” he said, “that made me think I had to be sharper, funnier, quicker than anybody else.”

Williams will no doubt need to work to win forgiveness from viewers, but it is possible, says McBride. “Some, particularly young people, may never change their attitude toward him,” she says. “But given time and a clean record, Williams could build a different reputation.”