NBC Should Forget Brian Williams and Start Promoting Lester Holt

Analysis: Promotional support for Holt would help network step away from high-profile gaffes

Brian Williams Nightly News Replacement
Image Courtesy of NBC

Lester Holt notched an exclusive interview with the bystander who captured video of a South Carolina police officer shooting Walter Scott and even anchored NBC’s “Nightly News” from a seat in a helicopter. What does the guy have to do to get a little promotional support from the network he’s helped in the tightest of pinches?

NBC News was so enamored of Brian Williams up until a few months ago that it devised a royal promotional campaign for him last fall using actor Michael Douglas in voice-overs (that effort has been removed from the air in light of Williams’ acknowledgement he falsified an account of a 2003 trip to Iraq, an admission that got him a six-month suspension). If Holt is getting similar treatment, NBC News won’t say. Reps for NBC News declined to respond to queries about promotions for the Holt-led “Nightly News.”

In these days of uncertainty about some of the best-known anchors in TV news, a campaign for Holt could prove a balm for a situation that continues to be inflamed. To be certain, there may be legal nits behind the scenes that keep the network from drawing attention to Holt while the fate of Williams remains unresolved (NBC News is investigating the veracity of some of Williams’ accounts of his work in the field). Recognition of Holt would be an endorsement of an employee who not only has filled in under difficult circumstances, but offers a transparent account of news of national import. Why would it be so difficult for NBC News to put its imprimatur behind a guy who tells the truth and has, so far, proven worthy of the viewers he serves?

Holt could use the help. He’s locked in a see-saw battle with ABC’s David Muir and “World News Tonight.” ABC has more or less stolen the evening-news title in recent weeks, ending NBC’s five-and-a-half year stint as the most-watched evening newscast on TV week after week (to be sure, “Nightly” narrowly has more viewers on average over the course of the current season). Even so, Holt continues to push back his rival, winning, in various weeks, the audience advertisers covet most and even the most viewers overall. Imagine what he might be able to do if NBC actually put some promotional firepower behind him.

Under CEO Steve Burke, NBCUniversal has made much of a big-bullhorn process it calls “Symphony,” under which the company uses all its TV networks and digital properties to tout its most important programming initiatives, like “Today,” its Olympics coverage and its recent Super Bowl broadcast. Even a single note of this corporate boosterism would lend wind to Holt, who may well see ratings erode if NBC doesn’t start backing his efforts. Is NBC bound by its contract with Williams not to promote another person as anchor for “Nightly News”? Does the network expect Williams to return to the desk?

Envisioning a welcome home is difficult. Networks are accustomed to breakdowns in relationships with talent, as anyone who watched CBS and Warner Bros. grapple with a Charlie Sheen gone rogue from “Two and a Half Men” in 2011 might note. But while it’s one thing for an actor to become unreliable, it’s quite another for the evening-news anchor to become unworthy of trust.

A company like NBCUniversal has little room for doubt in people like Matt Lauer, Savannah Guthrie, Jimmy Fallon and whoever inhabits the evening-news seat. These folks move into viewers’ living rooms (and beyond, thanks to streaming video) every day. After Jerry Seinfeld poked fun at Williams on NBC’s own broadcast of the 40th anniversary of “Saturday Night Live,” one has to wonder if the newsman can return to any position other than the free-floating correspondent title NBC News accorded Ann Curry after she lost her spot on “Today.”

Lester Holt hasn’t made the rounds of talk shows as of late, and hasn’t hosted “SNL.”  But he’s proven a reliable custodian of the evening-news anchor chair and, unlike Brian Williams, isn’t giving NBC something scandalous to shout about. The network would do well to consider some shouting on his behalf.