Lester Holt is on a ratings roll on "NBC Nightly News."
The evening news broadcast last week scored its third consecutive weekly ratings win since Holt was officially named as the replacement for Brian Williams as anchor.
The program also has taken a narrow lead of 5,000 viewers over "ABC World News Tonight With David Muir" in the 2014-15 TV season among the audience of 25- to 54-year-olds, the group targeted by advertisers that buy commercials on news programs.
For the week of July 6-10, Nielsen data showed "NBC Nightly News" averaged 8.1 million viewers, 9% ahead of "ABC World News Tonight" (7.5 million) and 22% ahead of "CBS Evening News With Scott Pelley" (6.7 million). In the 25-54 demographic, NBC had a 10% lead over ABC and a 30% lead over CBS.
Holt is benefiting from NBC's on-air promotional campaign that touts his ability and willingness to report from the field. Officially naming Holt to the job after he filled in for Williams during his five-month suspension probably has encouraged evening news viewers to sample the broadcast again.
"NBC was able to take the cuffs off and this is what you have," said Andrew Heyward, a media consultant and former network news executive. "Now it's a fair fight again."
Williams will be reassigned to cable network MSNBC after his suspension ends next month. He lost the "NBC Nightly News" anchor chair, a position he held for 10 years, because of false statements he made about his reporting during the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. He will anchor breaking news segments on MSNBC.
Jaime Spencer, senior vice president at the media consulting firm Frank N. Magid Associates, said research conducted after Williams' suspension began showed that the audience would readily accept Holt as his replacement and the surrounding controversy would not tarnish the NBC News brand.
Holt joined NBC News in 2000 and became a familiar face to viewers as weekend anchor for "Today" and "NBC Nightly News," and the anchor of the prime-time newsmagazine "Dateline NBC."
"Lester was seen as the best possible replacement among all we asked about, and it seems that is consistent now that he's got the job," Spencer said.
ABC News continues to tout the year-to-year audience gains for "World News," which changed anchors last fall when Muir succeeded Diane Sawyer. The program's average viewership of 8.5 million is up 6% over a year ago and is at its highest level in eight years. The average of 8 million viewers for "NBC Nightly News" is off 7% compared with last season. "CBS Evening News" is up 3% to 7.2 million viewers.
Heyward noted that having two evening broadcast newscasts experience audience growth at a time when viewers have so many options is an unexpected development in TV's rapidly changing landscape.
"Collectively they have stabilized a genre that had been in decline for years," he said. "They have a tight race, and all three networks have something to brag about. You're going to see an old-fashioned circulation war."