Veteran Holt in unique position at NBC

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Lester Holt - NBC News
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Veteran Holt in unique position at NBC
FILE - In this Oct. 27, 2014 file photo, Lester Holt attends the New York premiere of "Nightcrawler" in New York. Holt's first report card as NBC's choice to fill in for suspended anchor Brian Williams as "Nightly News" anchor found him maintaining the network's ratings lead, although the competition has tightened. The understated understudy has worked without a break since Williams took himself off the newscast on Feb. 7 and was suspended for six months by NBC News on Feb. 10. The network continues to investigate Williams for misrepresenting his experiences as a journalist. (Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP, File)
Lester Holt, left, and Al Roker dress as The Blues Brothers from Saturday Night Live during a Halloween episode of NBC's "Today" show on Friday, Oct. 31, 2014, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)
Lester Holt attends the 20th anniversary of The Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame, in New York on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2010. (AP Photo/Peter Kramer)
LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT -- 'October Surprise' Episode 1506 -- Pictured: Lester Holt as himself -- (Photo by: Michael Parmelee/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
"Today" show co-hosts Lester Holt and Natalie Morales attend the 20th anniversary of The Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame, in New York on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2010. (AP Photo/Peter Kramer)
TODAY -- Pictured: (l-r) Peter Alexander, Natalie Morales, Willie Geist, Lester Holt, Al Roker, Julia Sweeney, Matt Lauer, Savannah Guthrie, Jenna Bush Hager, Meredith Vieira, Hoda Kotb, and Kathie Lee Gifford appear on the 'Today' show on Thursday, October 31, 2014 -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
TODAY -- Pictured: (l-r) Lester Holt and Al Roker appear on the 'Today' show on Thursday, October 31, 2014 -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
LATE NIGHT WITH SETH MEYERS -- Episode 0036 -- Pictured: (l-r) Lester Holt and Seth Meyers during the 'Forced Friends' skit on April 24, 2014 -- (Photo by: Lloyd Bishop/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 22: (BROADCAST-OUT) (L-R) Jordan Malone, Eddy Alvarez, J.R. Celski and Chris Creveling of the USA Speed Skating team pose with Lester Holt on the set of the NBC TODAY Show during the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics on February 22, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 22: (BROADCAST-OUT) Julie Chu of the USA Women's Hockey team speaks with Lester Holt on the set of the NBC TODAY Show wearing the Ralph Lauren outfits to be worn at the Closing Ceremonies during the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics on February 22, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 16: (Exclusive Coverage) Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett speak to Lester Holt onstage at Frank Sinatra School of the Arts on June 16, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage)
TODAY -- Pictured: (l-r) Todd English, Savannah Guthrie and Lester Holt appear on NBC News' 'Today' show -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)
From left, Jeff Zucker, Natalie Morales, Hoda Kotb, Kathie Lee Gifford, Meredith Vieira, Al Roker, Jim Bell, Ann Curry and Lester Holt attend the 20th anniversary of The Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame, in New York on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2010. (AP Photo/Peter Kramer)
Two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank is interviewed on the NBC "Today" television program by Lester Holt, in New York Thursday Dec. 13, 2007. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)**EXCLUSIVE**
** ADVANCE FOR MONDAY, APRIL 28 ** News anchor Lester Holt works on the MSNBC set in Secaucus, N.J., April 15, 2003. Holt, who was MSNBC's chief Iraq war anchor, is a star on the rise at NBC News. (AP Photo/Brian Branch-Price)
SAN DIEGO, CA - JULY 20: NBC journalist Lester Holt attends NBC's 'Grimm' press line during Comic-Con International 2013 at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront Hotel on July 20, 2013 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
TODAY -- Pictured: (l-r) Lester Holt and Richard Engel appear on NBC News' 'Today' show -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)
TODAY -- Pictured: (l-r) Savannah Guthrie and Lester Holt appear on NBC News' 'Today' show -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)
THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO -- Episode 4408 -- Pictured: News anchor Lester Holt during an interview on February 13, 2013 -- (Photo by: Paul Drinkwater/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
TODAY -- Pictured: (l-r) NBC News' Lester Holt, Natalie Morales, E!'s Jason Kennedy, NBC News' Dylan Dreyer and Erica Hill appear on NBC News' 'Today' show on March 22, 2013 -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)
TODAY -- Pictured: (l-r) Natalie Morales, Savannah Guthrie and Lester Holt appear on NBC News' 'Today' show -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)
TODAY -- Pictured: (l-r) Martha Stewart and Lester Holt appear on NBC News' 'Today' show -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)
TODAY -- Pictured: (l-r) Savannah Guthrie and Lester Holt appear on NBC News' 'Today' show -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)
TODAY -- Pictured: (l-r) Jane Pauley, Lester Holt and Ann Curry appear on NBC News' 'Today' show -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)
TODAY -- Pictured: (l-r) Matt Lauer, Jane Pauley, Lester Holt and Ann Curry appear on NBC News' 'Today' show -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)
TODAY -- Pictured: (l-r) Ann Curry and Lester Holt appear on NBC News' 'Today' show (Photo by Peter Kramer/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
TODAY -- Pictured: (l-r) Amy Robach and Lester Holt appear on NBC News' 'Today' show (Photo by Peter Kramer/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
TODAY -- Pictured: Lester Holt appears on NBC News' 'Today' show (Photo by Peter Kramer/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 09: NBC Weekend Nightly News anchor Lester Holt speaks onstage at the 49th USO Armed Forces Gala & Gold Medal Dinner to Honor Military Heroes and Volunteers at 583 Park Avenue on December 9, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for USO of Metropolitan New York)
TODAY -- Pictured: Lester Holt appears on NBC News' 'Today' show (Photo by Peter Kramer/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
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NEW YORK (AP) -- Lester Holt's first report card as NBC's choice to fill in for suspended anchor Brian Williams as "Nightly News" anchor found him maintaining the network's ratings lead, although the competition has tightened.

The understated understudy has worked without a break since Williams took himself off the newscast on Feb. 7 and was suspended for six months by NBC News on Feb. 10. The network continues to investigate Williams for misrepresenting his experiences as a journalist.

"Nightly News" with Holt averaged 9.43 million viewers last week, the Nielsen company said. ABC's "World News Tonight" had 9.03 million viewers and the "CBS evening News" had 7.63 million. The 400,000-viewer advantage over ABC last week is smaller than the average 587,000-viewer edge by NBC for the season that began last September.

Holt, 55, has been with NBC News since 2000 and before that worked as a news anchor in Chicago for 14 years. Besides being Williams' chief sub for the past two years, he co-anchors "Dateline NBC," "Weekend Today" and "Nightly News" on the weekends.

He's been placed in a uniquely awkward position, asked to right the ship for a company desperate to get out of the headlines, not knowing whether it's a temporary position or one that could become permanent. And if Williams does not return, what can - or should - Holt do to prove he's the right person for the job?

"It's tough," said veteran news executive Rick Kaplan, once Holt's boss when he was MSNBC president. "He has to be very careful, because until Brian's future is outlined very clearly, Lester is just doing the network a favor in a way."

He called Holt a wise choice for the role. Holt has unassailable credentials, works hard and does the job without drawing attention to himself, Kaplan said.

"What NBC needs is quiet competence, and Lester has that in abundance," Kaplan said. "Lester is someone everybody can be proud of. He is somebody the people of NBC News can be proud of and rally behind, because that's what they need right now."

Holt is choosing to keep his head down and do the job, not speaking publicly about his role. He's an accomplished bass guitar player, but he's not going on entertainment programs to show his chops or swap stories about the news business. Frequent appearances on talk shows led to trouble for Williams, and NBC knows that it's no time to display how entertaining their news anchor is.

"I never believed the anchorman should be the know-it-all," Holt said in a 2003 interview with The Associated Press. "And I try to communicate that to the audience. While I have some knowledge from my years of experience, what I want to do is walk you through this because we're all walking through this together."

When the Iraq War started last decade, MSNBC similarly worked Holt hard, often giving him anchor shifts during the day and in the evening, and having him appear on "Today" in the morning.

There's no indication Holt has lusted after Williams' job. They're the same age and, until two weeks ago, Williams was about as secure as you can get in the broadcast business, armed with a long-term contract and atop the ratings.

But there's also no indication Holt won't work to take advantage of an opportunity.

NBC will be watching closely to see how the Holt-anchored broadcast holds up in the ratings. "Nightly News" won on four of the five nights last week, losing only on Wednesday, the evening after Williams was suspended and his name was stripped from the broadcast. NBC has won 282 straight weeks in the ratings, Nielsen said.

But reliance on ratings is tricky. Suppose NBC sinks - would it be because viewers didn't like Holt, or because they were angry at NBC because of what Williams did? Or angry at NBC because of how Williams was treated?

Holt's lack of flashiness may be just what NBC needs now, but that's something that could be a handicap when executives are choosing the person who would essentially be the face of the network news division. Executives often feel they need stars in that role, the Katie Courics, Diane Sawyers or Matt Lauers of the world. David Muir's recent success replacing Sawyer at "World News Tonight" shows the desire for big names may be overrated.

While people like Russ Mitchell, Carole Simpson and James Brown have filled in, and Max Robinson was a co-anchor at ABC News more than 30 years ago, a black journalist has never been a sole anchor on one of the three network evening newscasts. There will be interest in whether Holt has the chance to be the first.

"I'm not ascribing motives," said Richard Prince, a former Washington Post journalist now at the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. "I'm just saying that it hasn't happened."

NBC's immediate goal is to find Holt a few days off, preferably by this weekend.

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