Lester Holt has a different kind of helicopter story to tell.
In May, the 56-year-old Holt found a new way to anchor “NBC Nightly News.” He climbed aboard a chopper borrowed from NBC-owned station WCAU and held forth in an effort to coordinate coverage of a massive Amtrak derailment outside Philadelphia. “We couldn’t find a really good anchor position,” Holt explained in a phone interview Monday afternoon, and producers asked him, “‘What would you think about anchoring the broadcast from a chopper?’ My very next words were, ‘Well, nothing could go wrong with that,’” he joked. Papers were strewn all over the cockpit, and Holt even had to do some work helping to guide cameras, he recalled. Even so, he said, “I was kind of in my element.”
A whirlybird proved to be the downfall of Holt’s “Nightly News” predecessor, Brian Williams, whose embellishment of a 2003 reporting trip aboard a helicopter in Iraq prompted NBC to send him to MSNBC after a months-long deliberation that became a media spectacle. For Holt, who has been named the newscast’s new steward, the aircraft offers a sense of how willing he is to take the newscast to new places.
“A year or two from now, people might be watching us on their toaster,” said Holt, who makes his debut this evening as the program’s official anchor, “and we’ve got to be there to put butter on the bread.”
As audiences change habits to accommodate the rise of streaming video and mobile devices, Holt sees opportunity to try new things and experiment with ways to deliver information. He has taken to Facebook to interview correspondents, and experimented on set with live-streaming video app Periscope. “We are still feeling it out,” he said. “I want people to know me a little more in ways that I can’t always express in a half-hour broadcast. That’s the direction I think we are all going in.” He also expects “NBC Nightly News” to emphasize coverage of technology and Silicon Valley, and wants to make regular trips to anchor the broadcast from California.
NBC has the impetus to test new elements for the show. “Nightly News” is locked in a see-saw battle for ratings dominance with ABC’s “World News Tonight.” Season to date, the NBC program continues to attract more viewers overall, but with David Muir at the helm, ABC has edged out NBC in viewers 25-54 — the audience most coveted by advertisers in news shows. Already, the network has geared up to promote its new anchor, adding his name to the title of the newscast and this past weekend launching a new promotional campaign for “Nightly News” — the first time it has done so since Williams left the broadcast.
“World News” at ABC “has been making some noise ever since Muir took over” in September of last year, says Kevin Finch, a former TV-news director who now works as an assistant professor of journalism and mass communications at Washington and Lee University. The ABC broadcast “is heavy on bits of video and things like that — the kind of stuff you would find if you were grazing the Internet — and there’s a sense of that makes it feel, I guess, contemporary.”
Battle With ABC Continues
Holt expects the fight to continue. “It’s a battle,” he conceded, but noted, “We are past this rough spot and we are moving forward.”
With Holt as anchor, “NBC Nightly News” has focused less on celebrity-oriented stories than it did under Williams, says Andrew Tyndall, a consultant who analyzes the content of the networks’ newscasts, and has dug deeper on issues relevant to the 2016 presidential election than its rivals. NBC has devoted more minutes to crime and weather than CBS, but less than ABC, and has spent more time focusing on government and foreign affairs than ABC, but not as much as CBS.
Holt is “an exceptional anchor who goes straight to the heart of every story and is always able to find its most direct connection to the everyday lives of our audience,” said Andrew Lack, chairman of NBC News and MSNBC, in a recent statement, and Tyndall interprets that to mean Holt will opt for examinations of social issues and human-interest stories rather than stuff that goes viral on social media. Stories followed on Holt’s watch include how the cost of cancer medications can bankrupt the people who suffer from the disease; the drought in California; and hacking and Internet security.
“I just want our news to be relevant. I want it to be relevant to what people are talking about,” Holt says. That will mean in some cases pressing to land so-called newsmaker interviews, which have become the coin of the realm for many in the TV-news business. ABC and Diane Sawyer recently garnered a huge amount of attention for nabbing an interview with Bruce Jenner before he appeared in public as a woman named Caitlyn, and Fox News Channel announced Monday that Megyn Kelly will in 2016 anchor a series of specials with celebrities, politicians and other people in the news.
Holt has nabbed big interviews of his own in recent months. He had an exclusive talk with Feidin Santana, the eyewitness who captured video of a police officer killing Walter Scott in South Carolina. He interviewed the family of Freddie Gray, the Baltimore citizen who died in police custody. And he secured a talk with Wayne Kyle, the father of Chris Kyle, whose story was featured in the Clint Eastwood movie “American Sniper.”
“We always want the big interviews, and we will be going aggressively after those,” Holt says. At the same time, he says he uses a great deal of caution in the TV-news booking wars. “I have made booking calls and spoken to people, and one of the things I say is ‘I don’t know if you really want to talk to me,’” he explains. “I try to put them at ease and let them know I’m not sure what I would do if I were in their circumstances.” Yet he says he also understands such interviews “are a big part of what we do,” and NBC News needs to deliver them.
He is more ambivalent about using his “Nightly News” perch as a step to broader opportunities. Brian Williams grew beyond being a traditional news anchor, finding new popularity as a guest on talk shows or hosting “Saturday Night Live.” One theme that made its way through the social-media chatter surrounding Williams’ predicament is that those appearances placed pressure on him to tell more colorful stories about his job then he had at the ready, and led to his troubles. Holt is not averse to poking fun at himself, but says he is largely focused on “this broadcast, and making it my own.” He will “evaluate” chances to appear elsewhere, he says, as they surface.
With the Williams drama hanging in the background, handling “Nightly News,” he says, “wasn’t fun, at first, he says. “This is not the way anyone wants to get a job like this, but I think everyone accepts that.” In recent weeks, he has come to enjoy the challenge of putting together the daily report, and the collaboration involved. For now at least, NBC News has done away with the “managing editor” title that often goes along with being a evening-news anchor, but Holt thinks the role he inhabits will largely be the same. “I expect to have a large editorial influence and a voice on this broadcast,” he said. “Let’s put our heads down, and let’s just do this.”