NEW YORK — During the past week or so, Brian Williams had so much going on that learning he'd have a new competitor in CBS' Scott Pelley was the least of it.
There was an aborted trip to London, a late-night Alabama check-in for tornado coverage, a White House correspondents' dinner where he sat with a military leader who gave no indication that an order had been given to attack Osama bin Laden's compound and the next night's announcement of the terrorist's death.
He was America's anchorman, invited by David Letterman to discuss the bin Laden story on the "Late Show," and by Charlie Rose to be a fill-in moderator for a panel of thinkers talking about the mission.
"This is the time," he said, "the time to show up, to answer the bell, to participate and hopefully be good at it."
His omnipresence illustrated the challenge facing Pelley when he begins as "CBS Evening News" anchor on June 6. The Williams-anchored "Nightly News" on NBC clearly sets the standard in popularity, and although ABC's Diane Sawyer has shown positive movement with "World News," it's not a consistent threat.
Williams is a self-professed "weather geek" who checked on the devastating tornado outbreak in the South on April 27 before boarding an overnight flight to London to help the "Today" team anchor coverage of Prince William and Kate Middleton's wedding. He stayed awake on the plane studying a wedding briefing book. "I can tell you the Middleton family has a paved and not gravel driveway," he said.
He never got to use the trivia.
Picking up his baggage at Heathrow Airport, he saw a report on his smartphone that 83 people had died because of the tornados. The death toll was well into the hundreds by the time he was driven out of the airport. He asked the driver to pull over, consulted with his bosses in New York, and decided to book a flight back home. He arrived in time to anchor Thursday's news, then flew to Tuscaloosa, Ala., and checked into a hotel where the manager said the regular night clerk had been killed in the storm.
Williams received praise for abandoning the wedding in favor of a breaking story, in both the media (the New York Daily News' Richard Huff called it an "excellent move") and on the street, where he's been stopped by strangers commending him. Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox said he suspected Williams' visit led to contributions to the relief effort.
"Anytime you can get someone of his stature to Tuscaloosa to talk about what people are going through, it means a lot," Maddox said.
In the short term, the decision did not pay off. On Friday, when ABC led its newscast with Sawyer in London talking about the wedding while Williams opened with tornado damage, ABC had 236,000 more viewers, the Nielsen Co. said. It was the first day since September that ABC had won. On a typical day this season, "Nightly News" has a 1.1 million viewer advantage over ABC, more than 3 million over CBS.
Williams also took some teasing from the dais at the White House Correspondents' Dinner from fellow NBCer Seth Meyers of "Saturday Night Live": "I don't know if anyone heard about this, but Brian landed in London to cover the Royal Wedding, only to turn around and return to America to cover the tornados in Alabama. It was incredibly brave and courageous. And that is a direct quote from Brian Williams."
It was the right thing to do, Williams said.
"I didn't do it for attention, or for the ratings," said Williams, who blogged about his decision. "I was surprised it got any kind of attention at all because it's how we made our bones. It's what we have told our viewers to expect from us."
From Alabama to Washington for the correspondents' dinner, then home to Connecticut for a quiet Sunday. The only thing Williams anticipated doing that night was arguing with his wife over TiVo, and whether to watch "The Office" or "30 Rock."
The call from the White House came in at 9:43 p.m. He was given the news in strict confidence and began racing to the New York office, switching back and forth on his satellite radio between CNN and MSNBC and listening to reporters dancing around news that they knew but couldn't report yet.
That led to a spate of stories about TV networks looking slow in comparison to social networks Twitter and Facebook, where rumors about bin Laden swirled.
"You could learn about this story on social media Sunday night, but you couldn't learn what we told you about it," Williams said. "The tonnage, the raw material came from journalists, and it came in parcels larger than 140 characters."
He spoke last week in a conference room off the studio where Rose tapes his PBS show, a few days after his Letterman appearance. Sometimes it seems Williams is on other programs as much as his own. But as long as they don't interfere with his NBC work, he feels the guest shots benefit all concerned.
He's all business in a discussion with historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and two journalists, an interview with NBC's Richard Engel, and retaping introductions because of faulty scripts. It's only when the studio backdrop flashes, "Happy birthday, Brian" (he's 52), that he swiftly switches modes. He pretends to be a PBS fundraiser seeking pledges by airing doo-wop specials.
Only a few years ago NBC executives privately wondered how to make viewers aware that the formal, sometimes stiff guy they saw onscreen was the amusing man they knew.Comment on this story
How far gone are those days? New York magazine just ran a piece on Williams' comic stylings on such shows as "Saturday Night Live" and "The Daily Show."
Still riding high in the ratings, an achievement considering the collapse of NBC entertainment around him, and now the dean of network evening news anchors, there's a good chance Williams has his job for as long as he wants it.
"I'll never walk away because of complaints about the job," he said. "My wife is under orders to know when it's time and to yank me firmly from the stage. She will know."