Friday, July 3, 2015

Holt, Noah and the liberation of TV news

HISTORICALLY, June 19th has been a day for recognition of the delayed liberation experienced at the end of the Civil War. That’s the day in 1865 when a Union Army officer read the Emancipation Proclamation to the black people of Galveston, Texas -- people who found out that day that slavery had been ended ... more than two years earlier.

Among other, uncharitable reactions they may have had, you can be sure that some of their number, students of cognitive dissonance, came to an anodyne conclusion: “Better late than never.”

Students of modern electronic media probably thought the same thing on Thursday, June 18 — another “teenth” in June — when NBC News formally announced that Lester Don Holt Jr. would be the new anchor and managing editor of the NBC Nightly News, the first sole permanent African American anchor in the history of broadcast television news. It was just the latest example of television news of the present, and presumably the future, unshackling itself from the past.

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Holt, an NBC News reporter for 15 years and for 4 ½ months the interim anchor, took over for Brian Williams, who’s moved on to a new role — undetermined and under fire — at MSNBC, where he was for years while being groomed for his stint in the anchor chair. That ended in February, under unfortunate circumstances.

Holt, 56, called the promotion “an enormous honor.” "I’m very proud and grateful to be part of such an unflappable and dedicated team of professionals as we move forward together,” he said in a statement.

For years now, Holt has been the Swiss Army knife of NBC news programming. As co-anchor of the weekend “Today Show” for 12 years, Nightly News weekend anchor for eight years, and anchor of “Dateline NBC” for four years, Holt may well have passed themselves in the hallway at 30 Rock from time to time. His ubiquity at the Peacock Network and a straight-ahead, professional demeanor helped him gain a very favorable stature at the network, and it’s played a part in keeping NBC competitive against a resurgent ABC “World News Tonight” hosted by David Muir.

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DESPITE BROADCAST television’s slow erosion of viewers in the face of cable and streaming options, and time-shifting technology like TiVo, the news anchor chair has always held a singular fascination in the teleculture. The last-name-only status of these anchors — Cronkite, Reasoner, Chancellor, Rather, Brokaw — still conveys the idea of their being a mandarin presence in our daily TV lives.

Given the demographically monotonous history of those anchors, Holt’s elevation at NBC becomes even more of a standout event. His rise at the Peacock and the earlier epochal anchor-chair news — Trevor Noah, a relative comedy unknown, was tapped in March to replace Jon Stewart at “The Daily Show” on Sept. 28 — continues a process that’s been under way, bubbling just below the surface for a long time.

The years-long browning of the MSNBC lineup complexion; the growing diversity of field reporters at network and affiliate levels; and the steady emergence of Telemundo and Univision as formidable media brands targeting the Latino population, point to the inescapable: The white male stranglehold on television news is over, as out of date and behind the times as your grandmother’s DuMont.

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Ironically, the reach for the sustained credibility that NBC makes with Holt’s elevation is contradicted by what’s happening, or not happening, with Williams, the now-former Nightly News anchor. Williams, whose gift for telling tall tales related to his journalistic experience forced him off the air in February, now moves to MSNBC in August, there presumably to assume a breaking-news role not unlike the one he had there from 1996 to 2004.

That’s smart from a financial perspective, and maybe from a ratings viewpoint. Last December, Williams signed a five-year, $50 million contract with NBC; an outright dismissal would have meant NBC writing Williams a monster check (and no doubt watching him decamp immediately for another network).

From a ratings standpoint, moving Williams to his old stomping ground at MSNBC may provide viewers a sense of stability, returning to older, stronger lineup from earlier days. This matters because Andrew Lack has returned to NBC as chairman of NBC News and MSNBC. Lack’s returned to do something about MSNBC’s plummeting ratings. “MSNBC has been on a ratings slide for months; in February, it was down 48 percent in primetime in the 25-to-54 demo and 43 percent in total day compared with the same month last year,” The Hollywood Reporter noted in March.

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BUT THE viewers are weighing in. A commenter at The Huffington Post remarked: “Within MSNBC, there’s concern that management’s move may create a misperception that journalistic standards are lower at the cable news network. If Williams isn't credible enough to anchor the broadcast news, as the decision may be interpreted, is he credible enough to anchor breaking news on cable?”

Steve Burke, the CEO of NBCUniversal, told HuffPost that Williams' return to MSNBC gives him “the chance to earn back everyone’s trust ... his excellent work over twenty-two years at NBC News has earned him that opportunity.”

People who work at MSNBC aren’t mollified. One MSNBC insider told TheWrap that many at that network are ““dumbfounded how Williams’ 'lack of credibility squares ... with a network striving to be to be looked at more seriously for news coverage.”

Which doesn’t matter to Clay Cullum, who implicitly compared the ratings of MSNBC and NBC in a comment on the Williams situation in TheWrap: “He's in the federal witness protection program. No one will ever find him over on MSNBC.”

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Williams’ NBC loyalists will have to content themselves with Holt, who hit the ground running not long after his promotion. Holt took “Nightly News” in a new direction last week, anchoring a special one-hour edition of “Nightly” last week, in the face of events in Charleston, S.C., and the Supreme Court’s momentous decisions on Obamacare and same-sex marriage.

He didn’t shoehorn everything into a half-hour and then hand off to the affiliates; that one-hour special broadcast was a break with the past, and certainly suggests a willingness on Holt’s part to break with tradition — or with habit — and follow major stories outside the 30-minute box (As Events Warrant, of course).

With NBC and MSNBC under Lack’s experienced hand, there’s justified confidence that the break with the past that Lester Holt represents won’t be the Peacock’s last.

Image credits: Holt: NBC News via Variety. Noah: Byron Leulemans/Comedy Central. Williams: NBC News.

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