When Lester Holt visits Florida next week, it won’t be for a vacation. But he will take the regular format of “NBC Nightly News” on a short trip.
The veteran anchor will visit Fort Myers Beach and Miami early next week, and on each of two nights will spend a significant amount of time delving into news and issues pertinent to those locations.
“There are a lot of stories to be told in Florida, not just from a political standpoint, but environmental and tourism and recovery from storm disaster,” Holt says in an interview. He’s traveled to Fort Myers before, when a hurricane was making its way through the city, but “the idea is to visit places when they are not necessarily going through their worst day,”
On Monday, Holt will probe how insurance companies may have shortchanged residents whose properties were damaged severely by Hurricane Ian, and Sanika Dange, an anchor at Orlando-area NBC affiliate WESH, will report on how climate change is affecting Florida’s tourism industry. On Tuesday, Holt will examine blue-state families who moved to red-leaning Florida, while NBC News’ Gabe Gutierrez looks at the state’s growing national political profile and Constance Jones of NBC-owned WTVJ profiles Barrington Irving, the first Black and youngest pilot to fly solo around the world.
Viewers won’t miss out on the big news of the day, says Holt, and “Nightly” can pivot if a national story is dominating the cycle. Yet the focus on Florida is emblematic of the anchor’s continued willingness to experiment with a format that many perceive as being one of the most hidebound in the industry. With just 22 minutes or so of air — the remainder of the half-hour running time is devoted to commercials — evening newscasts are largely hemmed in by their mandate to give viewers synopses of the day’s most important stories, in fact-checked and succinct fashion.
There’s nothing wrong with exploring the terrain. “We are in a state where we need more ways we can find to report the news,” says Bob Schieffer, who anchored both “CBS Evening News” and “Face The Nation” over the course of a long career. “I wish anyone well who’s got an idea like that,” especially one that takes viewers away from the familiar environs of New York and Washington, D.C.
Holt has tried to stretch new muscles. In 2020, he launched a “Kids’ Edition” of “Nightly” that continues to this day. In recent broadcasts, Holt has talked to Sesame Street characters about mental health awareness, and looked at the birth of a rare antelope at the Oregon Zoo. He has also tinkered with the “Nightly” ‘closing, delivering in somber national moments something more reflective and nuanced than the typical anodyne sign off. One day before the 2020 presidential election, he told viewers, “democracy is messy, but we’ve got to let it work,” particularly for “our children, who you know are watching us.”
His latest initiative takes place as a restructuring of NBC News might leave more room for being nimble. Under the aegis of Cesar Conde, the chairman of NBCUniversal’s news operations, NBC News has been broken up into three distinct units, with “Nightly” and the streaming outlet “NBC News Now” placed in the same group led by executive Janelle Rodriguez. She has pushed “Nightly,” says Holt, to “take more big swings on the broadcast.”
Still, even Lester Holt can’t shake things up too much. “My feeling has always been that the way people receive our news is going to continue to evolve,” but the program itself must meet the expectations of its audience. “NBC Nightly News” is, like its counterparts at ABC and CBS, one of the most-watched properties on broadcast TV, which means there’s only so much change any anchor or producer can make, and little of it can be of the radical sort. When Katie Couric took over “CBS Evening News” in the fall of 2006, the network made several tweaks aimed at bringing the show into the modern era, complete with a segment for guest opinions. She recounted in her 2021 memoir “Going There” how CBS eventually the steered the newscast back to its regular format.
“It’s hard to change the format for the demographic that is watching the evening news,” says Couric, reacted by text message. “You can’t do anything too dramatic as I discovered when I was given that edict at CBS.”
Some have tested new ground. In February, Norah O’Donnell broadcast two episodes of “CBS Evening News” live from the U.S.S. Nimitz aircraft carrier in the South China Sea. Couric once did an entire program focused on the war in Afghanistan. Holt once anchored “Nightly” from a helicopter for an entire broadcast, despite a sheaf of papers that got strewn all over the cockpit.
The “Nightly” crew has tried deep dives before. Holt did a series called “Across America,” where he traveled to a new place each day and offered a longer look. But doing it over the course of many days proved taxing, he says, and he thinks a shorter period might work better. He says he would consider examining issues in New England, or, perhaps, diving deep into a particular topic rather than a region of the country.
“We have a little more room” to try new things, says Holt. “Audiences are changing,” he says, “and we try to meet them wherever they are.”