NBC's Lester Holt on 'desperation tour' to save struggling evening newscast

Faced with cratering ratings and serious questions about whether he can hang on to his job, NBC anchor Lester Holt has embarked on what one NBC insider called a “desperation tour,” hosting his broadcast from different cities where NBC’s audience research experts believe he can score some new viewers.

NBC has billed the promotional venture as “NBC Nightly News: Across America,” and Holt is scheduled to broadcast from five cities in five days. He kicked things off on Monday in Portland, followed up with Tuesday’s episode in Denver and anchored Wednesday night from Chicago. Holt is in Pittsburgh for Thursday’s broadcast, then in Raleigh, N.C. for Friday. The NBC anchor also has stopped at a variety of local affiliates along the way to promote his suffering program.

“On the surface, it's a smart move to visit cities outside of Los Angeles, New York City, and Washington. But their ongoing ratings fight with ABC and this fraud of a report about their conduct concerning Matt Lauer has really made this big PR push fall off the ledge and lose any significance that such a move might normally have,” NewsBuster managing editor Curtis Houck told Fox News.

ABC’s “World News Tonight” topped “Nightly News” among total viewers last week and was the only evening newscast to grow compared to the same week last year, according to TVNewser. The ABC newscast tops “Nightly News” among total viewers on a regular basis these days as Holt barely maintains NBC’s lead among the key demo of adults age 25-54. NBC often touts the strong demo performance of “Nightly News,” but Holt’s lead in that category has shrunk from +15 percent a year ago to +5 percent last week.

NBC “Nightly News” has been struggling badly, even when compared to its competitor at embattled ABC News. ABC’s “World News Tonight” with relatively unknown anchor David Muir topped “Nightly News” as the most-watched newscast in the first quarter of 2018, marking the first time ABC won a Q1 in 19 years. ABC averaged over 500,000 more viewers than NBC on a nightly basis, the largest viewer advantage over “Nightly News” in 22 years, according to TVNewser.

Even more embarrassingly, the perennially last place CBS Evening News, with an unknown anchor named Jeff Glor, is nipping at the heels of “Nightly News.”

Holt’s troubles may loom largest, but Media Research Center Vice President Dan Gainor told Fox News that ABC, NBC and CBS are all “suffering because none of their anchors has the name, the reputation and the gravitas of previous anchors,” and feels Holt is a good example of that problem.

“I bet if you did man-on-the-street interviews, not one person in 10 could name any of the evening news anchors,” Gainor said. “Personality and pizzazz are viewed as important.”

Lester Holt has anchored “Nightly News” from Portland, Denver and Chicago in an attempt to attract new viewers.

Lester Holt has anchored “Nightly News” from Portland, Denver and Chicago in an attempt to attract new viewers.

Some point to Holt’s widely panned performance moderating a presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in Sept. 2016 for the decline in “Nightly News” viewers. During the debate, Holt questioned Trump aggressively about the racially charged issue of police “stop and frisk” policies while, critics say, he lobbed softballs at Clinton.

The Hill media reporter Joe Concha wrote the morning after the event that Holt came into the debate “as a news anchor with a sterling reputation for being a non-partisan newsman,” but woke up the next morning with “at least 40 percent of the country questioning that distinction.”

“NBC’s Lester Holt emerges from debate bruised and partisan” was the headline of Concha’s article

Concha pointed out that Holt was quick to fact-check Trump but often gave Clinton a pass.

“He exists as the toast of left-leaning media,” Concha declared.

Gainor said network newscasts “aren't just wrestling with their standard left-wing biases” these days because they are also “finding it difficult to cope in a complex media environment” with significant competition from cable and digital outlets.

“That means traditional network anchors will continue to battle it out for a decreasing audience over time,” Gainor said.

President Trump often calls NBC “fake news” and just as bad as his bete noir, CNN, but Mediaite columnist Joseph Wulfsohn doesn’t think Trump’s insults are the reason for Holt's decline, as The New York Times is regularly mocked by the president and its subscription numbers are up.

Wulfsohn told Fox News that it’s “difficult to pinpoint one reason for Holt’s ratings deficit” but thinks a series of hits to the credibility of NBC News could be part of the problem.

“If I had to make an educated guess, it’s the bad press NBC has been getting lately that has a bigger role than Trump’s attacks,” Wulfsohn said.

Holt has to be looking over his shoulder, several NBC insiders told Fox News.

Holt’s predecessor, Brian Williams, expects to be reappointed to the anchor chair he lost in 2015 due to embellishing war stories, the insiders say.

Williams reportedly has assurances from embattled NBC News Chairman Andy Lack that he can return to his “Nightly News” role “as soon as Lester implodes,” according to one NBC News producer who spoke to Fox News.

Former “Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams was demoted to MSNBC after he was caught embellishing stories.

Former “Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams was demoted to MSNBC after he was caught embellishing stories.

Williams is presently hosting an 11 p.m. show on MSNBC as punishment for his lies and exaggerations.

An NBC correspondent, who spoke to Fox News on condition of anonymity, says Holt’s problems may actually be very simple.

“He’s not a good anchor. He’s boring and self-important. It’s time for a change,” the correspondent said.

When reached for comment, an NBC News spokeswoman provided the following statement: “Not a single story you’ve written about the internal workings of NBC News has been accurate, and neither is this one."