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Successor or Seat-Warmer, Lester Holt Is Ready for His Close-Up

He is universally liked and respected at NBC. But will Lester Holt, standing in for a suspended Brian Williams, ever take over ‘Nightly News’?

02.12.15 4:44 AM ET

Sometimes it’s the little things.

Since Brian Williams’s ignominious departure, something slight but significant has happened to NBC’s 6.30 p.m. Nightly News credits.

When anchors are away—on vacation, assignment, wherever—the title-card and announcement on their broadcasts stays customized with their name. Their replacement then says they are “in” for the missing lead anchor.

No longer. Williams has been suspended for six months without pay, and correspondingly NBC has brutally stripped Williams’ authorship from both the introductory “NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams” graphic caption, and also the introductory announcement.

The announcer intones, “From NBC News in New York, this is NBC Nightly News. Reporting tonight, Lester Holt.”

The graphic now simply reads, “Nightly News.” It is not “With Lester Holt.” Much as studio bosses have eradicated all on-screen signs of Williams, they also have not conferred on Holt any kind of ownership of the bulletin either.

The could-be-anyone “reporting tonight” is emphatically not the proprietorial “with.”

Perhaps after all the controversy around inflated-ego network news anchors, having a broadcast not led by one may confer some renegade kudos on NBC.

NBC News did not respond to inquiries for comment, but one presumes Nightly News will stay in this un-owned hinterland until either Williams returns, or Holt or another anchor officially succeeds him.

The 55-year-old Holt, therefore, is in quite an odd position himself—not a successor, but a seat-warmer and possible successor-in-waiting with none of the official trappings of the job. And yet we probably will watch Holt negotiate this tricky terrain with his characteristic unflappability.

He outlined Williams’ dismissal to viewers himself, adding to the statements of station chiefs: “If I may, on a personal note say, it’s an enormously difficult story to report. Brian is a member of our family, but so are you, our viewers. We will work every night to be worthy of your trust.”

Whatever else may happen in the next six months, whatever new revelations about Williams and his reporting may emerge, it seems NBC is banking on one thing: his replacement is rock-steady Eddie. For now, at least.

Throughout the week-long firestorm that consumed Williams and the newsroom, one of commentators’ oft-repeated tropes was that—should he lose his job—that Williams had “no natural successor.”

But this was untrue: all the time there has been Holt, who presents the bulletin at the weekend, as well as anchoring Weekend Today, and Dateline NBC—and who seems trusted and liked by the viewers who watch him. And, as The Daily Beast has discovered, his colleagues feel the same way.

Holt’s TV news career began in the early to mid-1980s in local affiliate postings in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. He moved to MSNBC in 2000—he has said the crash of Concorde that year, and he being a “plane geek,” meant he was soon occupying the anchor’s chair.

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Amy Holmes, an anchor for The Blaze TV and former MSNBC contributor when Holt presented there, told The Daily Beast: “My limited experience as a contributor, way back when watching the anchors do their thing, was that Lester was always gracious and low-key, doing his job with professionalism. I saw a couple not-to-be-named anchors throw tantrums. Maybe they were justified, who knows? But I do know that Lester was never one of them.”

Holmes recalled working alongside Holt during the 2000 election: “the counts, recounts, hanging chads, court battles,” as she puts it. “Lester Holt was always lovely, kind, gracious and encouraging. He had a very grounded view of TV, rolling with all of the constant changes to his anchor time slot: 7 p.m. one week, 5 p.m. the next. 

“Lester took it all in stride, calm and steady. That's how it looked as a contributor on the set in Secaucus, New Jersey. And, I imagine, how he looked to the viewers at home: comfortable, reassuring, easy, no ego—just the news.”

His sterling, long-houred MSNBC election coverage during the contested election earned him the nicknames “Iron Pants,” and also the “Scud Stud of the Electoral College Crisis.” 

In 2003 Holt moved to NBC, where his popularity with colleagues remained consistent. Soledad O’Brien, who worked alongside Holt at NBC, told The Daily Beast: “He’s fantastic, smart, a hard-working colleague, experienced, a dedicated newsman—every positive adjective. He’s also a great dad.” (Holt and his wife Carol have two sons.)

O’Brien said she recalled Holt joining the NBC News division, “immediately commanding the respect of everybody. He was well-liked. He was great working on stories in the field. If he was needed, if he could help, he would step up to the plate.”

Perhaps this very collegial personality could also be Holt’s undoing when it comes to aspiring to the anchor chair.

One longtime NBC correspondent, who worked with Holt for many years (and who requested anonymity), told The Daily Beast he was “the classic team player. He’s a great guy, a pleasure to work with on every level. I watched my colleagues agitating to succeed David Gregory on Meet The Press with naked ambition, but you’d never see that kind of thing from Lester. Because, until now, he works weekends, he doesn’t travel with the same entourage as the other big presenters.”

The colleague said the bass-playing Holt was unusual in that he was universally liked in the newsroom—producers, cameramen and technical staff included. “He always looks great, no matter the hours he has worked,” the colleague added, laughing. “He dresses to the nines, his clothes are elegant, and he is perfectly coiffed.”

The longtime colleague said Holt would not mind if his stewardship of the 6.30 p.m. bulletin was temporary. “I think Lester will be very sensitive to the circumstances—that however long it lasts, he might just be warming the chair. I don't think he would have a problem ‘going back’ to whatever he was doing before afterwards.” 

The longtime colleague said, for all the respect and affection Holt commands, they doubted whether Holt had the “'number one' factor that people like Brian Williams and Matt Lauer have. I can’t see Lester having the outsize personality to be the face of NBC News. I just don’t think he is the person to fill that chair.”

But Lauer’s popularity imploded after the controversy surrounding Ann Curry’s tortured and emotional removal from the Today show, and Williams is now going through his own hell. Perhaps Holt’s humility and less bombastic command of center stage is precisely what NBC News needs at its apex right now.

He must be doing something right. On Tuesday, Holt's second day in the job, CNN reported, NBC beat its main rival, ABC's World News Tonight with David Muir, “in all the key ratings categories, according to preliminary Nielsen numbers.”

We’ll know how successful Holt ultimately has been if and when Williams returns, or if and when those opening credits feature Holt’s name, front and center.