- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 25, 2005

NEW YORK

New Year’s Eve is the biggest party night of the year, and television is among the most youth-obsessed media, so guess who will be the top hosts this weekend when the ball drops in Times Square?

A couple of guys in their 70s, that’s who.

Dick Clark and Regis Philbin have long cultivated a sort of ageless appeal, and that will be put to the test during New Year’s Eve specials on ABC and Fox, respectively. Mr. Clark’s hosting partner, Ryan Seacrest, and NBC’s Carson Daly are also on duty.

The septuagenarian send-off to 2005 — one of a handful of interesting television subplots for the night — is particularly rich in irony. ABC and Fox are among the TV networks that usually pretend people older than 50 don’t exist.

“Regis can do anything these young punks can do,” says Mr. Philbin, 74. “I fit right in there with my Fox people. They want Regis to dance, Regis will dance. They want Regis to lift weights with them, Regis will lift weights with them. Whatever they want.”

Good thing he’s bringing a fighting spirit, because the lineup of performers Fox has given him — Nick Cannon, Tyler Hilton and John O’Hurley — is awfully thin.

The fact that Mr. Clark, 76, is the father figure of New Year’s Eve is a vivid example of how time flies. Some revelers, the ones with gray hair, can remember when he started “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve” in 1972 as a hipper alternative to Guy Lombardo.

Despite increased competition, it’s still the dominant show of the evening. This year, “Rockin’ Eve” adds a curiosity factor: it will be Mr. Clark’s first appearance on television since he suffered a stroke last December. Mr. Philbin was his emergency sub last year.

Rumors that Mr. Clark would not appear again have been fueled by his decision not to give interviews and a doctored publicity photo distributed by ABC that inserts an image of a pre-stroke Mr. Clark supposedly standing next to co-hosts Ryan Seacrest and Hilary Duff. Mr. Clark’s representatives insist he will be in Times Square this week.

Mr. Clark can do as much or as little as he wants, Mr. Seacrest says.

“For those who have grown up watching him, they want to see him,” says the host of Fox’s top-rated “American Idol.” “They want to see him doing all right, and they want to see him on the show. But we haven’t nailed down exactly what he’s going to do.”

Mr. Seacrest will be with Mr. Clark in New York, while Miss Duff will anchor and perform at a Hollywood segment. ABC nailed the night’s biggest booking with the year’s dominant singer, Mariah Carey, set to perform in Times Square.

The Bangles, Chris Brown, Sean Paul, the Pussycat Dolls, Sugarland, 3 Doors Down and 311 also will be part of ABC’s party.

Mr. Seacrest spent the past few years competing against Mr. Clark on Fox, but this year he signed a deal with Mr. Clark and ABC to co-produce the show and essentially become Mr. Clark’s heir apparent. The hope is that Mr. Seacrest will seamlessly take over when Mr. Clark decides he doesn’t want to do it anymore.

Mr. Seacrest, who turned 31 on Christmas Eve, says he always watched “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve” while growing up in Atlanta.

“My parents would leave me at home with a baby sitter,” he says. “It was my sister, me and Dick Clark celebrating New Year’s.”

As an adult, he has studied Mr. Clark’s career and used him for a model. “One of the reasons I wanted to do a New Year’s Eve show was because Dick did a New Year’s Eve show,” he says.

In one sense, that’s already a big victory for Mr. Seacrest over NBC’s Carson Daly, 32, another Clark acolyte. Mr. Daly takes pains to avoid being seen as a competitor to Mr. Clark. Even though there’s a clear opportunity to paint himself as the youthful alternative on New Year’s Eve, he almost needs to be coaxed into it.

“There will be something for everyone,” Mr. Daly says. “If my dad wants to watch Regis, and I’m sure he will, then God bless him. If my brother, who’s my age — and I know he’s a big Mary J. Blige fan — I know he’ll watch my show. We’re all going to have the ball drop, and we’re all going to have a good time.”

He has been watching old tapes of — who else? — Mr. Clark to help prepare.

Comic Wanda Sykes joins Miss Blige as Mr. Daly’s featured performers. Mr. Daly gets his shot this year because of the calendar; NBC lately has let Jay Leno’s “Tonight” show keep the time slot when New Year’s Eve landed on a weeknight.

Prime-time champ CBS is sitting out New Year’s Eve.

Young viewers certainly have other options. MTV’s annual soiree features Kanye West, Shakira and Adam Levine. ESPN is also getting into the New Year’s business, with Stuart Scott as host of a party on ESPN2 with guest Little Steven Van Zandt. It will mix sports highlights with a roster of garage rockers.

ESPN sensed that more and more of its young male viewers were interested in inviting friends to their homes rather than going out on New Year’s Eve, Mr. Scott says.

CNN’s Anderson Cooper also will be prowling Times Square for a special on the news network.

While he’s there, he may spot Mr. Philbin leading the crowd in a verse of “New York, New York” from his perch outside Planet Hollywood. Mr. Philbin caught the New Year’s bug last year when he filled in for Mr. Clark; now he’s a competitor.

“They could have had Regis back this year if they wanted,” Mr. Philbin says, with a rare edge. “Ratings were pretty high.”

He says he understood Mr. Clark’s desire to set up the “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve” franchise for the future.

“The Regis-Ryan network swap is kind of a fun dynamic, and I certainly wish Ryan the best,” says Phil Gurin, executive producer of Mr. Philbin’s Fox show. “I know Dick as well. Everyone doing these types of shows, we all know each other and we’ll probably have a drink when our shows are over, somewhere in Times Square, and just salute New Year’s together.”

Bridget Byrne contributed to this report.

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