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MBPT Spotlight: Ratings Say Lester Holt Deserved Promotion at 'NBC Nightly News'

When NBC decided on June 18 to name Lester Holt as Brian Williams' permanent replacement as anchor of the network's nightly news telecast, its decision was made easy by Holt's solid ratings.

Since taking over for Williams on Feb. 9, Holt has been averaging 8.3 million viewers per night, holding a 200,000-viewer lead over the ABC's World News Tonight with David Muir, which has been averaging 8.1 million viewers, according to Nielsen live-plus same day ratings data.

Before Williams was benched by NBC News, his newscast was leading second-place ABC's by more viewers than Holt was, but the 25-54 demo was in that same virtual deadheat. And it's in that demo that the advertisers audience guarantees are made.

In the advertisers' key 25-54 "news" demo, it has been a virtual deadheat, with ABC averaging a 1.68 rating compared to NBC's 1.65.

From the start of the 2014-15 broadcast season on Sept. 22 through Feb. 8, while Williams was anchoring the NBC Nightly News, NBC was averaging 9.2 million viewers compared to 8.6 million for ABC. However the 25-54 demo was a tie with NBC averaging a 1.82 compared to ABC’s 1.80.

Since the regular season ended and the summer season began on May 22, Holt’s NBC Nightly News telecast has averaged 7.73 million viewers compared to ABC’s 7.45 million viewers. And once again, the 25-54 demo has been in a deadheat with ABC averaging 1.56 and NBC averaging 1.55.

The overall conclusion — at least to this point — is that NBC has not been hurt by Williams' departure, and Holt has been a solid replacement.

Williams did have a 600,000-viewer lead over ABC when he was taken off the air in February and that lead is down to 200,000 with Holt doing the telecasts. However, most of those viewers who left NBC were older and not part of the advertiser desired demo, where there has been virtually no change.

That should make advertisers and their media agencies happy and should help NBC during the current upfront negotiations where the evening news daypart is being sold for the 2015-16 season.

While Williams was very high profile, it wasn’t as if Holt was an unknown. Holt had joined MSNBC in 2000 after spending 19 years in various news capacities at CBS. Since 2003, he had been coanchor of Weekend Today on NBC. He’s also been host of the primetime news magazine Dateline since 2011. And since 2007, he was weekend anchor of NBC Nightly News and at various times filled in for Williams when he was on vacation or sick.  So viewers knew Holt when he began filling in for Williams on the weeknight news telecasts.

“Lester Holt had a pretty high profile with the network and its viewers before the whole Brian Williams mess happened,” says Brad Adgate, senior VP, research, at Horizon Media. “He was not an unknown. He was sort of like David Muir at ABC who replaced Diane Sawyer when she stepped down. The next guy in line. And in this case, he and Brian Williams from an age perspective were peers.”

Adgate is sure that NBC was following Holt’s ratings numbers since he took over in February and finally decided after a four-month trial period that Holt had established himself as the best possible candidate to replace Williams permanently.

“I’m sure NBC was looking at the rating numbers,” Adgate says, “and when the wheels didn’t come off the car after a few months of Holt hosting the nightly telecast, NBC decided to make the move permanent.”

Adgate praises NBC News for the way it handled “a very volatile time” for the network.

“The news telecast became the news and that’s not a good thing for any network,” Adgate says. “But Lester Holt has done a very credible job and he weathered the storm and so did NBC.”

Lost in the competitive battle between the NBC Nightly News and ABC's World News Tonight has been the CBS Evening News, hosted by Scott Pelley.

From Sept. 22 through Feb. 8 when Williams was replaced, CBS Evening News was in third place but still doing a creditable 7.1 million viewers and a 1.4 25-54 demo rating. Since Holt began anchoring the NBC Nightly News telecast in Feb., CBS has been averaging 6.9 million viewers and a 1.3 in the demo.

Despite all the publicity good and bad, and the posturing by the networks trying to take credit for viewer gains or losses each week or month, Adgate says all three networks are still doing a very solid job in the weeknight 6:30 p.m. to 7 p,m. half hour.

“The evening news telecasts on all three broadcast networks do a pretty good job of cramming a lot of news and information into 22 minutes,” Adgate says. “There are many less people home today at 6:30 on weeknights than there was 10 or 20 years ago. It’s a tough time period to get viewership. Plus, people can get their news from a myriad of platforms throughout the day. Yet the three newscasts combined still draw more than 22 million viewers a night in that half hour.”