Lester Holt on Evening News Ratings: ‘It’s No Secret That the Election Has Disrupted Viewing’

By A.J. Katz 

NBC Nightly News and Dateline anchor Lester Holt isn’t too worried about the three evening newscasts losing audience to their cable rivals.

“It’s no secret that the election has disrupted viewing,” Holt told TVNewser today at the Fred Friendly First Amendment Award luncheon, at which he was honored. “A lot of people are focused on cable right now, but I still look at the daily ratings for the three networks with over 20 million people watching, which is astounding. Not a lot of programs can claim even 7 or 8 million viewers a night,”he said.

“I think I’ll comfortably make it to retirement and there will still be millions of people watching us every night,” said Holt, 58.

But while Trump-obsessed news viewers have flocked to cable news, Holt has personally been one of the biggest beneficiaries because of his recent interview with the commander-in-chief.

Just two days after Trump fired FBI director James Comey, Holt sat down for a previously-scheduled interview with him. That interview has been cited in recent congressional testimony  for the news that was made. The president admitted to Holt that he fired Comey “to relieve pressure” on the Russia investigation, and said “I was going to fire him anyway,” something the president’s communications team had previously deemed false. Pres. Trump also referred to Comey as “a showboat,” and claimed the FBI “was in turmoil” during the interview.

“On one level, it’s surreal to be sitting at your desk, hearing your name on TV and saying ‘wait, what are they saying about me?,'” Holt said. “At the same time, it’s in many ways a very high honor because you’re being judged on your work and at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about.”

Holt calls the interview “an important moment in my career. I’ve never had that kind of influence as that particular interview has had, and it’s truly gratifying.”

“Lester demonstrated that you can be an unflinching journalist, ask tough questions and still be civil and have respect,” said Fred Friendly’s widow Ruth Friendly in her opening remarks. “Lester, you persisted with your questions in that interview, remaining calm and waiting for the answers.”

This is the 24th year that Quinnipiac University has presented the Fred Friendly First Amendment Award, named for the former president of CBS News.

“Journalism has excelled, not withered, in the face of a sustained assault on its legitimacy,” Holt said during his speech. “That is something to be proud of, and reminds us that we should never take for granted the first amendment rights nor the responsibilities that come with them.”

Holt continued: “I hope Fred would agree that being branded a member of the mainstream media should be taken as a badge of honor, not derision. I certainly believe that.”

Fellow TV newsers in attendance included NBC News chairman Andy Lack, NBC Nightly News ep Sam Singal, Today Show ep Don Nash, Sunday Nightly News anchor Kate Snow, Dateline senior ep David Corvo, Dateline ep Liz Cole, NBC News svp of editorial Janelle Rodriguez, and Holt’s son, WNBC anchor Stefan Holt. Also, Fox News’s Bill Hemmer.