“Brian who?” might be the question of the week at NBC. Temporary evening-news anchor Lester Holt made a strong debut on “NBC Nightly News,” where he recently stepped in for the embattled Brian Williams amid ongoing questions over the accuracy of some of Williams’ reporting. For the week ended Friday, Feb. 13, Holt’s evening-news telecast averaged 9.4 million viewers, new data from Nielsen Media shows.
That’s down about 7 percent from the previous week but still enough to give NBC a solid lead over its competition. ABC’s “World News Tonight” was second with 9 million viewers, followed by “CBS Evening News” with 7.6 million viewers. According to NBC, “Nightly News” has been the most-watched news telecast for 282 consecutive weeks.
While it’s too soon to tell if Holt’s audience will stick with him, the strong debut raises questions about the extent to which NBC News -- or any newscast, for that matter -- relies on the star power of its anchors. Williams, who had been in the anchor’s chair for more than a decade before his six-month suspension began last week, is perhaps the most recognizable name in television news, but network newscasts, to some extent, have built-in audiences -- mostly older viewers who are used to getting their news in the time-tested format. A recent report from MoffettNathanson showed 73 percent of Americans 65 and older watch news on television, compared to just 34 percent of Americans age 18 to 29.
The dustup over Williams began earlier this month when soldiers questioned his account of being in a helicopter hit by rocket fire in Iraq in 2002, a story he frequently told. The discrepancy prompted an internal investigation by NBC followed by Williams’ six-month suspension on Feb. 10, a move that left a number of commentators questioning whether Williams will return.
In a CNN survey released Thursday, 52 percent of respondents said NBC should give him another chance, but judging by Holt’s strong showing, news anchors may be more interchangeable than is commonly believed.
In an unscientific person-on-the-street poll in New York, International Business Times asked 10 people if they could name an evening news anchor. Half could not come up with a single name. Two people said Brian Williams but noted that his name was in their heads because of the recent scandal. One person said Diane Sawyer and another said Dan Rather. Both, for the record, are former evening news anchors, Sawyer for ABC and Rather for CBS. Most respondents said they do not watch the evening news.
Holt’s name, however, was mentioned by a 23-year-old woman who said she was a regular watcher of evening newscasts. The woman, who declined to give her name, added with a smile, “Oh, and the formerly esteemed Brian Williams.”