“I liken it to how I think a firefighter would view it,” says Holt. “You don't sit there and wish for a five-alarm fire, but, boy, if there's gonna be one, you want it to be on your watch.”
And although his Chicago tenure was not the storybook tale of a new anchor coming in and capturing a city's heart (and, through ratings, its advertisers' dollars), it did teach him to view reporting as an essential part of an anchor's job, he says.
A native Californian who had worked in Los Angeles and New York, Holt started in Chicago in 1986 after the Operation PUSH-led boycott of WBBM, over issues of minority representation and coverage, seriously damaged its standing among viewers. So did subsequent management stabs at a more tabloid-style newscast.
Holt teamed with Linda MacLennan to front the flagship 10 p.m. news in 1995. While they were a polished, professional team, nothing the station could do would improve the ratings.
“It was a perfect storm for Channel 2,” says Jay Levine, WBBM's chief correspondent and a 38-year Chicago TV news veteran. “It was almost a cursed time with a number of mistakes that were made by various management teams here.”
Holt, though, was always a “consummate professional,” says Levine, one whose gifts made him even better suited to a national than a local job: “He can internalize material that he's given in a chaotic fashion and then put it together so it comes out smoothly and succinctly. Lester's always been like that.”
Holt's last general manager at WBBM was Hank Price, who says that when he started there in 1996 his bosses in New York wanted him to fire the whole news team, including Holt.
“I chose to keep him,” says Price, now the president and general manager at NBC affiliate WXII-TV in Winston-Salem, N.C. “I believed there was a greatness within him, which I think is now showing up on television.”
After four years, though, Price made a different choice: He let Holt go, bumping him from the 10 p.m. newscast in favor of what would be a brief, Carol Marin-led experiment in a more in-depth newscast.
Rather than accept a demotion to an earlier newscast, Holt decided, he says, that it was time to move on.
“I was hurting a little bit,” he says. “You try to have a thick skin and understand the business. But, you know, there's a part of me that says on some level, I'd failed.”
With doubt growing and just a few weeks left before his contract ran out, two offers came in. He could anchor the news at the NBC station in the San Francisco Bay area, where he was from. It would have been a comfortable role in a comfortable place. Or he could join then-fledgling MSNBC as an anchor.
He rolled the dice on the cable station and, he hoped, its ties to the network operation. To say it worked out is an understatement. Right away at MSNBC came a national profile for Holt and praise as he anchored coverage of the 2000 Florida recount, the Sept. 11 attacks and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
The network and “Weekend Today” came calling in 2003, and, as noted, Holt's role on the biggest of stages has only grown since. He's not a lead anchor, like Brian Williams on “Nightly” or Matt Lauer on “Today,” but he is in a 1A position and, to hear colleagues tell it, widely admired for his work ethic, collegiality and lack of drama.
“Literally 20 minutes ago,” Thomas, his “Weekend Today” producer, says, “one of my colleagues walked by and said, ‘You know what, Lester is a rock star.' They had just seen him on the ‘Today' show,” fronting a report about children hurt in the storm. “That is the sense that pretty much everyone who works with him has. He is just so effortlessly good and gracious and smart.”
Price attributes Holt's national success in the format to letting his personality come through.
“Lester is a genuinely nice human being,” Price says. “He would never do something to hurt somebody else. That's what I always wanted to see on television. That's what we do see on television now, and that's why he is successful.”
While Holt's age puts him — he notes — at the top end of TV news' desired 25-54 demographic, he remains young for a network anchor.
“I'm slipping into that other group,” he says with a laugh. He seems to enjoy himself, too, whether playing the bass or tuning in to his son's morning telecasts, also via Slingbox.
But don't doubt that there's ambition inside the nice-guy exterior: “I'd be a liar if I didn't say that at this point in my career, I would have hoped I'd be anchoring a Monday-to-Friday national broadcast of some sort, but it hasn't come to pass,” Holt says.
“On ‘Dateline' the last couple of years, I've really enjoyed working a story that may take months to do. And I have this vision of maybe going the way of Bill Kurtis and, I think, Tom Brokaw, to a certain extent — the ability to not be tied to the desk anymore, but to do projects that are meaningful to you.
“I expect to be continuing my role at NBC for a little while longer, but we'll see. You never know what doors are going to open up and why they are going to open up. You've got to be ready to walk through them.”
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