There are certain types of people who are drawn to Times Square on New Year's Eve - tourists, college students, frostbite enthusiasts and those who enjoy standing pressed against strangers for hour after excruciating hour.
This year you can add one more group to the list - the men who would be Dick Clark. With the world's oldest living teenager sidelined by a stroke, the wannabes are scrambling to show America they can carry Clark's torch, while the networks see a chance to establish new New Year's traditions.
Fox's Ryan Seacrest, NBC's Carson Daly and ABC's Regis Philbin will all be in or near Times Square tonight, oozing the sort of aw-shucks charm and bonhomie that has worked so well for Clark. CNN anchor Anderson Cooper also will be broadcasting live from New York, though he claims no ambition to be the next Dick Clark.
"My ambition is not even to be the next Ryan Seacrest," Cooper says.
Clark, 75, has been host of ABC's New Year's Rockin' Eve for the last 32 years, and he's expected to return next year. The program is the king of New Year's shows, routinely crushing the competition and drawing upward of 20 million viewers. Philbin will fill in this year, and ABC expects the program to continue its dominance.
But Clark's absence does present an opening, however small, for another broadcaster to stake a claim to the New Year's throne. Perhaps the best-positioned successor is the easygoing, perpetually tanned Seacrest, who hosts the radio program America's Top 40 and the wildly popular American Idol TV show.
"I started doing the New Year's show three years ago," Seacrest says of his Fox program, "and the intention was to have an alternative program for audiences and, some day, when the time was right and [Clark] was ready to pass the baton, to hopefully be the heir apparent to celebrating New Year's Eve on national television."
Seacrest's show will be broadcast from New York for the first time; he was in Las Vegas last year. From Times Square, he'll be counting down the most memorable pop culture moments of 2004 and introducing performances by 3 Doors Down, Hoobastank and others.
"I look at myself as the conduit," says Seacrest, who will occasionally leave his Times Square platform during the show to cavort on the streets with revelers. "I'm more of a traffic cop in most everything I do, and this is the ultimate night for being that conduit."
His New Year's show last year drew 3.7 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research, while Dick Clark on ABC was watched by 20.8 million - about the same number of viewers for a typical episode of Survivor or Desperate Housewives.
But even though plenty of people watch the Times Square ball drop on television, advertisers worry that not many are paying attention before or after that singular moment. And so commercial time on New Year's Eve does not command a premium, like with the Super Bowl.
"A show might report 20 million viewers, but you question whether all 20 million are actually watching," says Mike Skandalis, associate media director of MGH Advertising in Baltimore. "At parties, the TV is on, but maybe without the sound. Or at a nightclub, they might have monitors up with no sound."
Still, TV executives say New Year's Eve is one of those times when people turn to television for a sense of community. And they don't expect that to change. "People want to enjoy a shared experience through television, and that's what we can do so well," said Rick Ludwin, NBC's senior vice president for late night and prime-time series.
NBC is hoping to boost its ratings this year by starting the festivities early. New Year's Eve with Carson Daly will air live from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. from Rockefeller Center. NBC's primetime stars, including Donald Trump, will appear on the show, along with rockers Avril Lavigne and Maroon 5.
But Daly, who was the host of New Year's Eve shows on MTV for five years, is careful to say that he has no intention of showing Clark the door.
"You have to be very careful when you say, 'I hope the baton is passed to me,' or, 'I want to be the next Dick Clark,'" says Daly, the host of NBC's late-night Last Call. "Dick Clark is under the weather this year, but he's not going anywhere. That guy won't stop working, ever."
NBC believes Daly and Jay Leno, the Tonight Show host, can succeed on New Year's Eve because of their skill as comedians and broadcasters. They are able to bring a viewer into the moment, said Ludwin, the late-night vice president.
"These are the days when you feel like a broadcaster," he said. "Things are happening now. The audience wants to see them, and they're going to go around the dial until they find it. You tell them what the temperature is. People want to be a part of that event, even if they're not in New York City."
Executives at CBS may disagree. The network is the only one not to offer live programming at midnight on New Year's Eve. Instead, some CBS stations -including WJZ in Baltimore - will broadcast local New Year's celebrations.
WJZ will show Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's countdown at the Inner Harbor and air the fireworks that follow. Station anchors Vic Carter and Sally Thorner will broadcast live from the balcony of the Maryland Science Center from 11 p.m. to 12:30 a.m.
"It's the one thing we do each year that gets more positive responses from viewers because it's our town and it looks great," said WJZ vice president and general manager Jay Newman. He said the broadcast often wins its time period or is a close No. 2 to Dick Clark.
No countdowns here
Also in the hunt this year is CNN. Anderson Cooper, silver of hair and tongue, will anchor the program from a Times Square platform from 11 p.m. to 12:30 a.m., and he promises no countdowns or year-in-review moments. Instead, the show will feature punk rockers Green Day and Vegas queen Celine Dion.
The program also will feature a live report from Key West, Fla., where a drag queen named Sushi will descend from the roof of a bar in a giant woman's high-heel before thousands of cheering fans. Cooper said he'll interview Sushi sometime in the evening before the big moment.
"By midnight," he said, "Sushi's not all that fresh."
But most of the program will be focused on Times Square, he said. "We've found that the energy of Times Square is so amazing, you just want to revel in it and see it and talk to people who are there, and I think what CNN is able to do is really bring that live experience to viewers."
Cooper called Clark a television legend and said he's become synonymous with New Year's Eve for many Americans, but he hopes people will give CNN's program a chance this year. He does have one warning, though: Unlike Clark, he won't be wearing any ear muffs.
"My vanity wins out over practicality," he said.
New Year's Eve TV
ABC: Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve 2005. Regis Philbin is host. 10 p.m. to 1:05 a.m.
CBS: WJZ is airing Baltimore's New Year's Eve Spectacular. 11 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. Channel 13.
NBC: New Year's Eve with Carson Daly. 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. 11:35 p.m. to 12:35 a.m. Channel 11.
Fox: New Year's Eve: Live from Times Square with Ryan Seacrest. 11 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. Channel 45.
CNN: Anderson Cooper Live from Times Square. 11 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. Cable.