Two days after ABC's "World News Tonight" ended the five-plus-year winning streak of “NBC Nightly News,” Lester Holt came back swinging Wednesday, nabbing the first interview with the top newsmaker of the week. If the Peacock Network’s temporary dislodging from the top spot has raised questions about whether Holt has what it takes to replace suspended anchor Brian Williams, Holt’s coup from the ground in North Charleston, South Carolina -- his first field report since taking the anchor’s chair in February, according to the New York Post -- might put such concerns to rest.
Holt spoke with Feidin Santana, the man whose video footage of a white police officer gunning down an unarmed black man down in the street sparked national outrage amid an ongoing debate about the mistreatment of African-American men at the hands of police officers in departments -- large and small -- across the country. Santana’s footage of Walter Scott’s shooting death led to swift murder charges against Michael Slager, the 33-year-old officer who unloaded eight bullets and shot Scott in the back as he was fleeing.
Holt’s interview with Santana, in which the 23-year-old told Holt that he feared for his safety, was quickly picked up by news outlets across the country, serving as a reminder that evening newscasts on broadcast TV still have the ability to shape the national dialogue. By Thursday morning, Holt’s name was still trending on social networks like Facebook.
Early ratings data suggest the interview provided a boost for NBC, if not a substantial one. Deadline reported Thursday that “Nightly News” topped “World News Tonight” by 193,000 viewers, although overnight ratings data is preliminary and subject to change. The numbers, however, show just how close a race NBC and ABC have been in since February, when Brian Williams was put on six-month suspension amid questions about his war zone recollections.
However diminished the influence of evening news broadcasts is perceived to be in an age of endless media choices, they still command huge audiences. Holt has been averaging about 8 million viewers a night, compared with, say, about 500,000 for CNN’s “The Situation Room.”
Although much has been made about ABC beating NBC in the ratings last week, it was a narrow victory at best (“World News Tonight” topped “Nightly News” by about 84,000 viewers), and ratings-wise, Holt largely has been holding his own in a challenging environment across the board. But the toppling came at an unfortunate time -- during the same week an 8,000-word exposé in Vanity Fair cataloged broader problems plaguing NBC News Group.
Meanwhile, there has been much speculation about what incoming the NBC News Group chairman, Andrew Lack, plans to do with “Nightly News,” and he doesn’t have much time to decide -- the clock is ticking on Williams’ suspension, and Holt is looking more comfortable all the time.