NEW YORK – Let the surfing begin. With an ailing king, two would-be successors and a ubiquitous substitute, New Year's Eve (search) on television has more subplots than a party with three ex-girlfriends.
Dick Clark (search) and his "New Year's Rockin' Eve" (search) on ABC has been the go-to party for 32 years, but he'll be away from Times Square (search) this Friday as he continues recovering from a stroke. Regis Philbin (search) will fill in for him.
NBC is launching its own party show from Rockefeller Center with Carson Daly (search). Ryan Seacrest (search), in his third year for Fox, is bringing his show east to New York for the first time. Even gray-haired hipster Anderson Cooper will emcee a CNN New Year's show from Times Square with the rock band Green Day.
Both Daly and Seacrest were booked before Clark took ill, an indication of an approaching generational shift. Much like Clark took over from Guy Lombardo as television's most popular New Year's Eve host, Daly and Seacrest are jockeying to be the next in line.
"When it's time to say, 'OK, here's the show and the guy that is going to be around on New Year's Eve for years to come,' I would definitely like to be the one that the baton gets passed to," Seacrest said.
Don't expect Clark, health permitting, and ABC to give it up easily. "New Year's Rockin' Eve" is annually ABC's second most popular entertainment special after the Oscars.
"There's never been anything to put a dent in it," said Andrea Wong, ABC's senior vice president for alternative series and specials. "There continues to be a huge appetite for the show."
Even in his mid-70s, as he introduces artists young enough to be his grandchildren, Clark's perpetual teenage image has kept the fogey factor at bay. In recent years, he's brought on a younger co-host from Hollywood, a role filled this week by Ashlee Simpson.
The ABC New Year's Eve special will run three and a half hours, starting at 10 p.m. EST, breaking after an hour for local news and returning from 11:35 p.m. to 2:05 a.m. Besides Simpson, performers include Big & Rich; Ciara; Earth, Wind & Fire; Fabolous; Kenny G; Billy Idol; Los Lonely Boys and Simple Plan.
Philbin, who's yet to find a TV job he can't do, was Clark's choice, Wong said. Between that endorsement and Philbin's own popularity, ABC doesn't expect to relinquish its crown.
Daly and Seacrest are both big fans of Clark. They've used his career as a model, and speak of him ever-so-respectfully.
But is that the sound of a door creaking open?
"Things could perhaps be up in the air now in light of the recent circumstances, the unfortunate circumstances with Dick," Seacrest said. "They had to put Regis in at the last minute, and I'm not quite sure what that show will be like or feel like without Dick Clark. He certainly will be missed by America."
"It really won't feel the same without him in Times Square," he said.
Seacrest, now a radio host of "America's Top 40," will run his show (airing from 11 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. ET) like a countdown. Not only will the year's best songs be played, he'll incorporate pop culture lists like the top five bitter breakups of the year. It's his first year as executive producer, and Seacrest is looking for ways to make the show distinctive.
Hoobastank and Evanescence will perform, and the show will include the world premiere of a 20-minute Usher video featuring four of his hits.
Usher fans may be delirious, but there's a danger others could see that time as a huge indulgence. But Seacrest points out it will happen after midnight, when many people stop paying attention to these shows or can't see straight anyway.
Daly spent five years as host of MTV's New Year's Eve party (which, by the way, has Lindsay Lohan as host this year) before taking last year off. He has re-emerged to inaugurate NBC's pre-party, which airs from 10 to 11 p.m. Jay Leno will have a live "Tonight" show when the Times Square ball drops.
If Daly is disappointed at leaving the air an hour before midnight, he's not letting on.
"I didn't really look past the fact that they said 'you'll be on the air live from 10 to 11 and here's the money,'" he said. "Maybe next year."
He wants the chance to establish himself as a potential New Year's Eve franchise for NBC.
"This is not about me trying to steal something from Dick Clark," he said.
His show will feature performances by Avril Lavigne, Maroon 5 and Duran Duran. Ever the good corporate soldier, Daly will also include a guest shot by "The Apprentice" star Donald Trump via satellite from Trump's own New Year's party in Florida and an appearance by "Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams.
(CBS, by the way, is essentially punting on New Year's Eve, running a prime-time lineup of reruns and a repeat "Late Show" with David Letterman.)
The closest Daly comes to trash talking with his rivals is calling Duran Duran a bigger act than "White Wedding" singer Idol, who's on ABC.
"There will be something younger and, in my opinion, a little cooler to watch that night," he said.
Cool. That's the territory that Fox and Seacrest is also trying to stake out.
Could a New Year's duel be far behind?
Since Seacrest will be in Times Square and Daly a few blocks away in Rockefeller Center, perhaps they could duke it out somewhere in the middle — say, Sixth Avenue.
"He's much taller and a little bit bigger than me," Seacrest said. "I think he'd probably be able to beat me up."