Lester Holt was just weeks away from unemployment in 2000 when NBC News came calling. Holt, who had been the main anchor on CBS station WBBM in Chicago, was demoted and “being pushed toward the door,” he says. But when NBC News offered him an anchor job at MSNBC, which would include opportunities on NBC News, Holt jumped.
15 years later he is the anchor of the NBC Nightly News, the network’s flagship newscast. “I look back and, I tell you, what a 15 years this has been,” Holt told TVNewser in a wide-ranging interview this afternoon. “I got some advice a long time ago that you always want to prepare yourself if doors open at weird times for weird reasons. And that’s exactly what happened.” We asked Holt about the transition 5 months in the making, what he takes away from Brian Williams’ downfall, and why he won’t have the managing editor title:
TVNewser: This morning you said you were going to savor today, then it’s back to work. What would you say is job one as you get back to work?
Holt: You know, it’s somewhat uncomfortable living under this spotlight and it’s nice and all that, and I’ve decided, you know, go ahead and enjoy the moment, but then we have to get to the business of working on our broadcast and try and shut out a lot of the attention that’s going to be cast our way over the next several nights and then get into our groove.
TVNewser: The ratings began tightening more than a year ago, when World News started winning in the demo. Recently they’ve taken some weeks in total viewers. And even CBS Evening News is starting to make inroads. What’s the game plan to stay ahead?
Holt: We’re coming from a place where this is still an incredibly strong broadcast. You’re right, it’s a tight race. We’re aware of it. I look at the ratings every day. But I can’t live and die by that. We’ve got to make sure that this broadcast is the one that we intend it to be every day and that it feels right to us. I’m a firm believer if you stick to your game plan, the viewers will come.
TVNewser: As you take on the new job you will not have the title of managing editor, which had become customary for the evening news anchors. Why not?
Holt: That was a decision that was made by management. That they don’t want any one person to have that much editorial control over the broadcast. Frankly, I’m kind of shrugging my shoulders over it. When you’re the anchor of one of these broadcasts you’re a leader. You have a strong editorial voice. Your voice is respected. You’re one of the leaders with the executive producer and the senior broadcast producers. That’s the way it’s always been and will continue to be. If there’s something that feels uncomfortable to me, I’ll be sure to make that known. Whether it has the title attached or not, I know that I’ll have a strong, influential voice in this broadcast.
TVNewser: What have your conversations with Brian Williams been over the last few days or and weeks?
Holt: Brian and I spoke on Thursday shortly after the announcement was public. I was out of town on vacation. He was here. We had a very, very good talk and we both acknowledged we would have liked to have had earlier, but that this was awkward for a lot of reasons. But we both… words came out of our mouth at the same time, that we are friends and that nothing that has happened has gotten between us. And we are very good. I thanked him for the kind, supportive words that he made publicly, and to me as well. And I in turn, expressed my best wishes and thanked him and made sure that he’s okay.
TVNewser: Do you think the outcome was fair?
Holt: It’s not for me to judge — and I’m not blowing off your question. I knew going into this, that that side was going to be taken care of and that was between Brian and our bosses. I didn’t judge it then and I’m not in a position to judge it now. In many ways, I’m too close. We’re friends. They spent a lot of months on this. They came to this determination. I don’t know what they’ve seen or what they know. They’re comfortable with it. And as far as I’m concerned, I need to focus on this broadcast and keep moving forward.
TVNewser: And what have you learned, what lessons do you take away from all this?
Holt: I can’t look at it from a lessons standpoint. I just am who I am. I’ve always said, ‘my work speaks for itself.’ Hopefully over the years viewers have come to know me. I’ve been in their living rooms a lot, before this and certainly for the last 5 months and all I can expect is them to come to know me as the person they’ve always known me as.
TVNewser: You and your on-air colleagues are asked to put yourselves out there on talk shows, so that viewers can see the other side of the anchorman. And this is where Brian got into trouble in his quest to be entertaining. I imagine you’ll still go on these shows but how will you approach these booking opportunities differently, or will you?
Holt: As they come, we’ll evaluate them. I don’t say ‘never say never.’ Just the nature of putting yourself out there and making yourself laugh, doesn’t make you any less a journalist or any less credible. But it’s something I’m not thinking about right now. I’ve got much more pressing matters, which is to take on this role on this broadcast. I am mindful that I’m the guy who likes to have fun, to poke fun at myself, to play my music and all those things. But it’s certainly with the knowledge that I am a face of NBC News and I recognize that carries a lot of responsibility.