The NBC News division of Comcast-owned NBC/Universal had no choice but to appoint Lester Holt to replace the suspended Brian Williams on the top-rated “NBC Nightly News,” and by doing so it painted itself into the right corner.
Holt will be the first African-American sole anchor of a major broadcast network’s early news program, and that’s good. Appointing Holt was the right thing to do because Holt had been Brian Williams’s regular backup for several years and was the obvious choice.
Unlike CBS News that cynically hired Katie Couric to anchor its evening newscast primarily because she was a woman, not because she was a qualified journalist, NBC News promoted Holt because he was the best person for the job, not because of his gender or race. NBC had its eye on merit, not necessarily the ratings.
Also, there would have been a huge outcry, led by MSNBC’s own Al Sharpton, if Holt hadn’t gotten the job. NBC would have been accused, and rightly so, of racism if they had not upped Holt. And now NBC is stuck with Holt for the same reason even though the ratings of the “Nightly News” will probably go down for several reasons.
First, the odds of any network evening news program staying number one forever are slim. Second, it is no secret that there is still racial prejudice and that there are people who will switch newscasts because of Holt’s color. Third, an anchorperson is not the only contributing factor to why people watch an evening network newscast.
AR&D, a major local TV station news consultancy, made a presentation at which I was present several years ago about the elements that contributed to a newscast’s success. There were 150 of them, and the anchor or anchors was only one of the factors, and not the top one. Media researchers know this fact, but the media generally don’t.
The media tend to simplify the highly complicated question of what makes a newscast number one, and they tend to attribute ratings success primarily to the anchor. The networks should be so lucky that it was as simple as hiring a charismatic news reader.
What Lester Holt has going for him is habit. Habit is the most important factor in a news program’s rating success. Also, Holt is very good at what he does – reading the news – and he’s a solid reporter and journalist.
What Holt has against him is that NBC News’s reporters and producers are not as strong as they used to be. The other 149 factors are not under his control and are weaker than those at ABC, as demonstrated by the fact that ABC’s “Good Morning America” took over the ratings lead from NBC’s “Today” in the summer of 2012 and is still in the lead. It seems inevitable that ABC News’s know-how will take hold at its “World News Tonight,” and the ratings trends are starting to show ABC catching up, even before Williams was suspended.
My heart goes out to Lester Holt, a solid professional who deserves to sit in the “NBC Nightly News” anchor chair, but who will blamed for an inevitable decline in the ratings that will have nothing to do with his competency or merit. I’m also glad that I’m not NBC or Comcast trying to deal with the situation at the same time that it is trying to convince the FCC and the Justice Department that it’s good for the country to allow it to purchase Time Warner Cable.
But that is another story. In the meantime, Holt is competently doing his job in the corner he’s in. Go Lester!