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. Clark 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 those TV networks that usually pretend people over age 50 don't exist.
"Regis can do anything these young punks can do," said 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 Clark, 76, is now the father figure of New Year's Eve is a vivid example of how time flies. Some revelers, the ones with gray hairs, 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 Clark's first appearance on television since he suffered a stroke last December. Philbin was his emergency sub last year.
Rumors that 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 Clark supposedly standing next to co-hosts Seacrest and Hilary Duff. Clark's representatives insist he will be in Times Square this week.
Clark can do as much or as little as he wants, Seacrest said.
"For those who have grown up watching him, they want to see him," he said. "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."
Seacrest will be with Clark in New York, while 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 will also be part of ABC's party.
Seacrest spent the last few years competing against Clark on FOX. But this year he signed a deal with Clark and ABC to co-produce the show and essentially become Clark's heir apparent. The hope is that Seacrest will seamlessly take over when Clark decides he doesn't want to do it anymore.
Seacrest, 31 on Christmas Eve, said 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 said. "It was my sister, me and Dick Clark celebrating New Year's."
As an adult, he's studied 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 said.
In one sense, that's already a big victory for Seacrest over NBC's Daly, 32, another Clark acolyte. Daly takes pains to avoid being seen as a competitor to 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," Daly said. "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's been watching old tapes of — who else? — Clark to help prepare.
Comic Wanda Sykes joins Blige as Daly's featured performers. Daly gets his shot this year because of the calendar; lately NBC 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, mixing sports highlights with a roster of garage rockers.
ESPN sensed that more and more of its young male viewers were interested in inviting friends over rather than going out on New Year's Eve, Scott said.
CNN's Anderson Cooper will also be prowling Times Square for a special on the news network.
While he's there, he may spot Philbin leading the crowd in a verse of "New York, New York" from his perch outside Planet Hollywood. Philbin caught the New Year's bug last year when he filled in for Clark; now he's a competitor.
"They could have had Regis back this year if they wanted," Philbin said, with a rare edge. "Ratings were pretty high."
But he said he understood 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," said Phil Gurin, executive producer of 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."