NEW YORK – Brian Williams has the smile of a man about to unleash a secret weapon. Or two. He's preparing for his first election night as NBC News' chief anchor Tuesday knowing he'll be flanked on the broadcast by his predecessor, Tom Brokaw, and Tim Russert, the Washington veteran popular for his plainspoken intensity during tense nights of vote counting.
It's a formidable edge to take into competition with two other rookies in the role, CBS' Katie Couric and ABC's Charles Gibson, and could help cement his status as the most popular network news anchor.
Not that there weren't a few anxious moments around NBC News earlier this fall.
Williams' "Nightly News" was knocked from its first-place perch for two weeks by Couric's "CBS Evening News" upon her early September debut, falling perilously close to third. But NBC returned to the top during Couric's third week, and hasn't been beaten since.
Williams got letters from regular viewers telling him they had tried Couric's broadcast, including one man who admitted his wife made him watch for a week, he said.
"As one of our executives put it, (they came) crawling home with the vague hint of cheap perfume and lipstick on their collar, crawling back after having an affair with another network," Williams told The Associated Press. "People are so loyal, is my point, that they feel the need to tell me that they've been watching someone else."
In retrospect, Williams and his executive producer, John Reiss, said they expected "Nightly News" would be hurt initially since Couric was a former colleague at NBC News.
They also said they weren't surprised that the evening-news competition quickly returned to the same pecking order that was in place for the last few years when Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather were on each night — NBC first, ABC second and CBS third.
"I go home each night with the confidence of knowing we did the best broadcast that evening," Williams said. "I believe the best journalism wins the most viewers on television. It finds its audience. The audience finds it. So I never for a moment thought these long-established patterns were going to be upended for the long haul."
It's probably safe now for people at NBC News to exhale, said Andrew Tyndall, a consultant who studies the content of the evening newscasts.
To upend Williams, Couric has to prove she is markedly better at the job and she hasn't done that, he said.
"His newscast is not a work in progress," Tyndall said. "It's sure of itself and has got its own rhythm so there are very few missteps in a half hour. They know what they're doing and they execute their plan."
Williams respects Couric, and said he checks out the competition with help of a digital video recorder. He's not a fan of CBS' new "Free Speech" opinion segment.
"My opinion on opinion is I'd have to kill a news story in that slot," he said. "We're airing one extra news story in that slot, and that's the way I like it."
There are a few worrisome signs for NBC, however. Since the TV season began on Sept. 18, the average "Nightly News" audience of 8.5 million is down 8 percent from the 9.2 million of 2005, when Williams benefited from the aftermath of his strong Hurricane Katrina coverage, according to Nielsen Media Research.
The "CBS Evening News" average of 7.4 million viewers during the same period is up 7 percent (ABC is down 4 percent), Nielsen said. NBC's decline and CBS' gains are both more pronounced among younger demographics.
And although Williams said the effects of NBC Universal's recent round of layoffs and budget cuts won't be visible to viewers, Tyndall wonders if they won't weaken the broadcast.
NBC's Reiss dismisses the ratings trend, noting that slow viewership declines are the norm with news consumers having so many choices. He suggests CBS' improvement is partly a reflection of how much ground was lost during Rather's final years, even though Rather had been gone for six months before the 2005 ratings were measured.
During a recent broadcast, Williams had an "I feel your pain" tone in his introduction to a report on making driving safer for young people. He's the father of one child in college and another teenager at home.
Williams' voice — more than the story mix — is what distinguishes his "Nightly News" from Brokaw's, Reiss said.
He's also having more on-air conversations with correspondents, an evening-news trend popularized by CBS' Bob Schieffer. Jim Miklaszewski talked recently about how Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld came after him at a news conference for the wording of a question, a "lifting the veil" segment that probably wouldn't have been done two years ago, Reiss said.
"It makes no sense to have Brian come in and just read a TelePrompter," he said. "He's a terrific interviewer and he actually listens to answers and responds. It's always helpful to have a dynamic broadcast and not one that is completely structured and planned in advance."
Plenty of planning goes into NBC's election-night coverage, although it can't be structured. For many Americans who aren't regular evening-news viewers, it will be the first time they will be able to take the measure of Couric, Gibson and Williams in a breaking-news situation.
Couric will be accompanied by Schieffer that night, and George Stephanopoulos will assist Gibson. Williams said he invited Brokaw — who thought he had finished election-night duties in 2004 — to provide historical analysis.
NBC's political team has also had a running head start on its rivals through MSNBC, where both Williams and Russert held forth during lengthy political segments during the past week. ABC and CBS, without cable outlets, can't match the exposure.
"I don't mean to sound like a promotions person," Williams said, "but I'm very bullish on our team going in."