Now that Williams is leaving the broadcast to a new role anchoring breaking news at
But the aftermath to Williams' suspension on Feb. 11, imposed by the network because of false statements he made about his reporting during the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, indicates that viewers don't necessarily need a high-priced star in the evening news anchor chair.
The ratings for Lester Holt's tenure have been on the same track as the performance with Williams in the chair. Before Williams' suspension, "NBC Nightly News" ratings were down 7% for the 2014-15 TV season among the 25-to-54 age group that advertisers want to reach with news programs. Since Holt took over, the year-to-year decline in that demographic has been about the same. The broadcast remains competitive in overall audience, finishing first in five of the last seven weeks.
Much of that has to do with habit and the familiarity with Holt – a steady presence on NBC News since 2000 – and the network's stable of veteran correspondents such as Andrea Mitchell, Richard Engel and Pete Williams.
"That's the family that the viewers know," said one former NBC News producer who asked not to be identified by name. "Maybe you don't have the same guy at the head of the table carving the turkey at Thanksgiving. But all of the brothers, sisters, cousins and uncles are there."
There is evidence that viewers were already seeing the network evening newscasts that way.
"All of the evening news anchors have been diminished just because of the competition of everywhere else, all the other places where we can go," said another veteran TV news executive who has worked closely with network talent. "I don't think the next generations are looking up to those guys. Morning shows, for whatever they're worth, seem to be the place where the broadcast networks are more powerful."
ABC has already taken that stand. When Diane Sawyer was in the anchor chair at "ABC World News Tonight," many people in the industry pegged George Stephanopoulos as her likely successor. After Sawyer, Stephanopoulos was seen as having the most gravitas of anyone in the network's news division.
But Stephanopoulos was part of the top-rated team at "Good Morning America," the program that accounts for most of the profit at ABC News.
Keeping that winning morning team intact was a priority at ABC News. Stephanopoulos wanted the role that came with the evening news job – being the face of the network during breaking coverage and special events such as election nights. He got it – along with the never-before-bestowed title of "chief anchor" – as part of his last contract negotiation. The "ABC World News Tonight" anchor chair went to David Muir, who agreed to having Stephanopoulos take on the duties that traditionally would have been his.
“That would have been inconceivable in the days of
CBS already learned that a flashy, high-priced name is not all that important to evening news viewers when it enticed
When Couric decided to leave, the network followed her with the more low-key