Ever since television news began, conventional wisdom has held that viewers bond to a favorite news anchor. The Anchor Rule has been codified into an old saying: People don’t watch the news, they watch the people who deliver it. § That TV catechism may be getting its strongest challenge yet in the wake of the Brian Williams fiasco. § One month after Williams was suspended for six months by NBC News for exaggerating his reporting experiences, the program he anchored, “NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams,” is doing just fine without him. § The network said Tuesday that the newscast, now anchored by Lester Holt, remained the most-viewed in the nation over the past month, just as it had been when Williams lost his job. § “Nightly News” had an average daily audience of 9.74 million viewers last week, continuing a long streak atop the Nielsens. Perhaps as important, it has recorded its biggest lead over its rivals – ABC’s “World News Tonight” (9.25 million viewers) and CBS’s “Evening News” (7.65 million) – since Holt took over from Williams on Feb. 9.
Much can change in a few weeks, or even days, in television, so the numbers come with asterisks and caveats (one of them: “World News,” anchored by David Muir, has been slowly gaining ground on NBC since last summer, particularly among younger viewers). But the news about its newscast is surely heartening to NBC, which has been beset by so much turmoil since the Williams unpleasantness erupted that its executives last week rehired Andrew Lack, the president of its news division a dozen years ago, to restore order, if not glory.
If the messy Williams-to-Holt handoff hasn’t damaged the broadcast, what does that say about viewers being loyal to an anchor?
Anchors remain a key component of any newscast’s success, but not the only one, people in the news business say. There are multiple factors: the newscast’s format, its story selection, the quality of its reporting, even what precedes it (a popular “lead-in” program can boost a show’s audience).
NBC spent years grooming Williams to be the face of its news division, installing him first as the anchor of the fledgling cable news startup MSNBC in 1996. His coronation came in late 2004, when he ascended to the “Nightly” anchor chair upon the retirement of Tom Brokaw. His popularity led NBC to reward him with a new five-year contract in December, reportedly at more than $10 million per year.
Holt is lesser known than Williams, but hardly unknown. A steady presence on low-rated MSNBC, he has been the weekend anchor on “Nightly News” since 2007. He has also been Williams’ substitute on the weekday broadcast, most notably when Williams went off the air for several weeks in 2013 to have knee-replacement surgery.
And that’s the key to Holt’s current success – his familiarity to viewers, said Deborah Potter, a former network news correspondent.
“And by the way, he’s really good,” said Potter, executive director of NewsLab, a journalism training organization in Washington. “People will watch people as long as they’re good.”
Wisely, in her view, NBC hasn’t changed much about “Nightly News” since Williams shipped out: The set is the same, as is the story selection, pacing, production values and field reporters. That kind of continuity keeps people tuning in, she noted.
Holt has “a goodness of fit” for the program, agreed Steve Ridge, president of the media strategy group at Frank N. Magid Associates, a venerable TV news consulting company. Sometimes, he said, a popular anchor in one city moves to another but flops because he or she doesn’t fit with the new station’s image and history, and because the “chemistry” with the station’s other news people isn’t quite right.
Ridge cites two network examples: David Gregory’s stint as moderator of “Meet the Press” and Katie Couric’s as anchor of the “CBS Evening News.”
Gregory had the misfortune of following the late Tim Russert, whose style and presence came to define the Sunday morning program. Gregory fared well for about three years, but then “Meet the Press” began to tank, leading to his ouster last year in favor of Chuck Todd.
“No one would argue that David Gregory wasn’t a good journalist or a strong personality,” Ridge said. “But did he fit after Russert? Those shoes were not only hard to fill, they may have been impossible to fill.”
Couric took over as anchor at CBS in 2006 after a hugely successful run as a co-host on NBC’s “Today” show. She replaced Bob Schieffer, the veteran CBS newsman who, like Holt, had temporarily taken on the job after Dan Rather was essentially forced out in the wake of a controversial “60 Minutes II” report about President Bush’s National Guard service. But while Schieffer largely maintained CBS’ audience, Couric lost viewers in droves.
“Schieffer was a good fit” for a broadcast known as the home of Walter Cronkite, Roger Mudd and Dan Rather, said Ridge. “Couric was not.”
The warm reception for Holt, at least so far, suggests that Williams could be a Wally Pipp in the making.
Pipp was the slugging first baseman for the world champion New York Yankees and a star. But in 1925, he lost his starting job to an up-and-coming player. Pipps’ replacement, a fellow named Lou Gehrig, made everyone forget that Pipp had ever played the game.