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Posted 12/29/2005 10:07 AM     Updated 12/29/2005 4:31 PM
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Battle of Times Square
Ten. Nine. Eight. ...

New Year's Eve revelers have been gathering in midtown Manhattan for decades to ring in a new page on the calendar.

But this year, Times Square is shaping up to be a battleground for broadcasting as ABC, NBC, Fox, Fox News Channel, MTV, CNN, PBS and ESPN all plan to air special live telecasts from the patch of land that has become New York's biggest party scene for one night each year. (Related story: Contenders spar for attention in Times Square)

In one corner: Regis Philbin, 74, a legend of live TV, working for Fox.

In another, Dick Clark, 76, making his first appearance since having a stroke last December, with sidekick Ryan Seacrest, 31, on ABC.

Also on the scene: competitive Carson Daly, 32, making his first Times Square appearance on New Year's Eve for NBC.

And that's not taking into account MTV's army of young VJ hosts who claim that they have the best spot in town because their studios span almost a block of Times Square territory.

ESPN is making its first foray into a New Year's Eve broadcast by televising rocker Steven Van Zandt's Little Steven's Underground Garage syndicated radio show, live, from the Hard Rock Cafe in Times Square.

"Even King Kong is doing a New Year's Eve show," Philbin cracks. "It has really blossomed."

An icon's homecoming

This year marks a particularly special event: the return of Clark, who missed last year's show. He has done no interviews or public appearances since his stroke, and tabloids have painted a grim picture of his health.

"Could Dick have done TV before now? Absolutely," says Larry Klein, longtime Clark pal and producer of Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve. "Did he want to? No." Klein adds, "This show is very important. He wanted his coming-out party to be his comeback."

Adds Paul Shefrin, Clark's personal publicist: "We've had tons of offers to do things." But Clark, always a keen businessman, wanted to wait and unveil himself to millions at once.

Typically, Clark's show — this will be the 34th year it has aired — dominates the night in ratings. Last year, even without the world's oldest teenager on the scene, Rockin' Eve clocked an average 7.9 million viewers in its prime-time portion (10-11 p.m.), the night's top show. Fox's New Year's Eve fest drew 5.7 million. NBC and Carson Daly finished with 4.5 million. On cable, MTV drew 1.9 million.

Klein says viewers can expect Clark's speech to be "terrific" and to see him up and about as host.

"He's not tied to a bed," Shefrin says. "That doesn't mean he's going to be running around the block."

For Ty Tindell, 29, a New Year's TV fan in Howard County, Md., the night is about one thing: "Dick Clark, Dick Clark, Dick Clark. New Year's Eve is not complete without the legend," he says, adding that the live performance by Mariah Carey on Clark's show also is a draw for him.

"We get two treats this year: finally, a real singer who isn't 13 and lip-syncing, and Dick Clark returns. I am actually considering going to Times Square to celebrate with Dick and Mariah."

Enter Ryan Seacrest

This year, the legend will have a protégé. Ryan Seacrest has signed a long-term deal to be involved as executive producer and host of the Rockin' Eve show, eventually taking the baton from Clark.

"Two years ago, I worked up a list of names, a ton of names, for the future," Klein says. "This person, that person.

"But a year ago, that list went from a ton of names to one: Ryan."

Why? "Just by Ryan doing his job, just by Ryan being who he is, he brings a freshness and a new vitality and carries on the tradition of what Dick has done for years, just by being who he is."

Seacrest, who grew up in Atlanta, remembers watching TV on New Year's Eve each year. His parents would go out, leaving $12 on the table for his babysitter to order pizza. He'd have a cider spritzer and watch Clark count down.

"Dick Clark — his middle name? New Year's Eve," says the American Idol master of ceremonies, who last year helmed the Fox New Year's Eve show. "I knew when I was on other shows, I knew we weren't going to beat Dick Clark. He is New Year's Eve."

Now, Seacrest is "the next Dick Clark," as he has been called many times. "We don't have the same hair, but I'd be extremely honored. I don't think you can ever replace Dick Clark."

The challengers line up

Phil Gurin, executive producer of the rival Fox show, says it will be a friendly competition on New Year's in Times Square.

"I wish Ryan the best. We go off at 12:30 a.m., and we're all hoping to go have a drink somewhere after the shows."

Representatives of all of the shows say the goal is to bring Times Square to the viewers as best they can. That's why Philbin plans to lead the Times Square crowd in a sing-along.

"It's Regis for the people," says Philbin, who sounds as if he's unleashing a battle cry. Last year, he filled in for Clark on ABC.

"I was in Times Square for the first time, even though I grew up in New York City. I really was kind of overwhelmed by the intensity and electricity of the whole thing. It's a once-a-year, one-of-a-kind type of ceremony, and it makes for great television to see that whole throbbing mass."

As for switching networks, he says, "my contract frees me to do whatever I want to do in the evening, and I admire Fox. They're very innovative."

He's happy to help

Still, he concedes: "ABC and Dick have the franchise. They've got the brand for it. Of course, a lot of folks will want to welcome Dick back. Then you've got Ryan Seacrest added to the mix. I think it's going to be pretty much impossible to beat them in a rating, but if I can help Fox increase whatever they have, I'll be happy."

The tradition of covering New Year's Eve goes back to NBC's live radio broadcasts from Times Square hosted by legendary announcer Ben Grauer in the 1940s. It continued into the age of television with The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

Daly was host of his first New Year's Eve for NBC last year from Rockefeller Center, about a five-minute walk from Times Square. This year, he says, he believed it was important to be in the midst of the real action.

"I feel like this year, we're in the big leagues," he says. "Our main objective is to be live starting at 11:30 p.m. to show the sights and sounds of Times Square and the ball dropping." He says he didn't want "a giant mishmash of pre-produced things."

As for going up against veterans Philbin and Clark, he says, "I feel honored. I've made no bones about my thoughts for both of them, especially for Mr. Clark, who I think the world of. I've modeled a lot of what I've tried to do after him, and he's been very supportive."

But isn't television on New Year's Eve only for losers who don't have an invitation to a wild party?

Says Daly, laughing: "Attention, nerds! Turn your TV on to NBC." He adds, "I think it's a great night to stay home."

For Dawn Clark of Glastonbury, Conn., staying home is a family tradition.

"When I started high school and continued on into college, I felt it was necessary to go to parties, but I still long for the days of watching Dick Clark and eating Cool Ranch Doritos," says Clark, 25. "I sometimes recorded the last couple of hours so I could see the musical performances and watch the ball drop, in case wherever I was didn't have the television on."

She predicts that the Clark/Seacrest team will be the best because "they are just so into it. They seem like they're having fun and happy to be there, and seeing that kind of genuine emotion is heartwarming. Carson Daly approaches most things he does with an 'I'm too cool for this' attitude, and even when he tries to be excited, I don't buy it. I'm sure Regis will be fine, and my grandmother will enjoy watching him very much."

Reaching for a younger audience, MTV has a big party planned and has just the location for it.

"I feel like we kind of have an advantage because we've taken over Times Square in a way," says Damien Fahey, 25, one of the hosts of the show. He explains that the second-floor MTV studios take up almost an entire block.

But, he says, "it really isn't a competitive thing. It's kind of like, 'It's New Year's.' Everyone's on the same page as far as attitude goes — we all just want to have a good time. I don't want to beat anybody.

"If you're into live music and the whole Times Square thing, you'll watch our show, I hope. It's more about everyone getting together and having a good time." Besides, he says, "we'll get together after the MTV New Year's Eve Show. Every year, Carson has a party."

At home, 'in your PJs'

Whether you're actually in Times Square or tuning in on television, rituals are a big part of the night.

"My husband and I always stay in for New Year's Eve," says Lisa Rutherford, 39, of Homestead, Fla. It's a tradition they've held for the past 12 years or so, she says.

"We have 'fun food' and champagne, play board games and watch When Harry Met Sally every year. At about 11:30, we turn on Dick Clark and watch the ball drop. It is our New Year's tradition, and we look forward to it every year. Although Regis did a fine job last year, we did miss Dick Clark. We'll be watching for him this year.

"New Year's is best spent in the comfort of your own home, in your PJs, with the one you love."

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