In honor of the milestone, PEOPLE caught up with Lester Holt, who dished on what it’s like hosting the longest-running primetime show on NBC.
“To be associated with a primetime broadcast news program that has run this long is pretty amazing — there aren’t too many shows that have had this kind of longevity,” says Holt of the series, which has amassed 45 Emmys in its 2,860 episodes.
But some of Holt’s most memorable Dateline experiences have been his “encounters on the street.”
“I always get amused, because there are people who only know me from Dateline — ‘There goes that Dateline dude!’ ” he says. “But of course, I’m thinking I’m also the NBC Nightly News dude, so it’s funny. But people really want to get into it and discuss some of these stories with me.”
“They want to talk about certain broadcasts, and they often want to know what my reaction is to specific things,” he explains. “As a news person, of course, my first reaction is to never comment, but these stories are a little different than politics, so sometimes we’ll talk about it. People seem to be very curious — I guess because I play the straight guy on the broadcast — about what I personally think.”
RELATED VIDEO: Dateline Superfan Kristen Bell Interrogates Keith Morrison
Among its roster of fans, of course, are some high-profile names: In addition to Bell, several stars have professed their love for Dateline, including Lady Gaga, Marcia Clark, Michael Bublé and Stevie Nicks.
“It’s a very broad group of famous people that watch the show!” says Holt, 58, with a laugh. “Occasionally, I’ll be watching some TV show and I’ll hear a pop culture reference to Dateline. It always brings a smile to my face.”
So what gets people so hooked?
“I think Dateline is popular — and the murder mysteries extremely popular — because they’re pulse-pounding dramas, but they’re real life,” Holt says. “They really happened. They play like movies in terms of the set-ups and the scenarios, but of course there are real people and real lives impacted, and I think that just adds an element that people find hard to resist.”
“These are fascinating stories of people who could have easily been your next door neighbor or your coworker,” he adds. “And that’s pretty bizarre.”
Indeed, true crime TV seems more popular than ever these days — but that’s only inspired Dateline to keep digging deeper.
“Every day there’s more and more demand for our eyeballs,” Holt admits. “We’re in a more competitive environment this season than we were last season, but there seems to be an insatiable appetite for a lot of the stories that we do, and no shortage of them.”
“We continue to scour the country — and the world, for that matter — for these stories,” he says. “They keep presenting themselves, and I think we’re uniquely equipped to tell them in a way that viewers can embrace.”
And of course, it doesn’t hurt that Holt has one of the best teams in the business working alongside him.
“They’re a great bunch of people,” says Holt of correspondents Keith Morrison, Dennis Murphy, Andrea Canning and Josh Mankiewicz.
“Keith, his voice and his storytelling style is so unique,” Holt says. “I always wanted him to do my voicemail. I always picture Keith Morrison saying, ‘Lester’s not here right now — or is he?‘ But I’m afraid to ask him.”
“Josh, Andrea and Dennis, they’re all just a great bunch of people who really embrace this broadcast,” he says. “They spend a lot of days and weeks on the road to find these stories and bring them to us, and I feel lucky to be in their company.”
Read on for more quotes from the Dateline crew!
If I weren’t a Dateline correspondent, I would be… at the airport a lot less often.
Something that might surprise fans about me is… I do all the cooking at home, and I use a lot of butter. On reflection, maybe that’s not such a surprise.
What does 26 years of Dateline mean to you?
Wow, is it really? I’m glad we were all able to tell stories in such a way that our audience stayed with us and grew over the years. That success in a business where you can be 13-weeks and out meant that we as friends and colleagues could grow up together professionally with relative security. We’ve had marriages, babies, house notes, tuition fees, laughs, tears and way too many pizzas on crash nights making deadline. I wish it were all starting over on Monday.
In my free time I like to… bang on my guitars and read, read, read.
Something that might surprise fans about me is… I write murder-mystery screenplays.
In my free time I like to… be with my five girls.
If I weren’t a Dateline correspondent, I would be… driving my poor wife crazy.
What does 26 years of Dateline mean to you?
A good start. I’ll keep at it for as long as they’ll have me.
Season 26 premieres Friday with a two-hour episode starting at 9 p.m. ET on NBC.