CARSON DALY and Ryan Seacrest are roughly the same age (early 30s), have similar job descriptions (broadcasters/emcees-turned-producers with a pop-music bent) and even favor the same fashionably laid-back, I-didn't-shave-this-morning look. But Daly dismisses any notion that the pair is engaged in a fizzy rivalry to replace you-know-who.
"Dick Clark is a huge inspiration for the huge success he's achieved," Daly said in a recent interview. "But that's where I stop. The world is changing. I'm young; I have my own thoughts as a producer. I'm not trying to keep his tradition. I'm trying to do my own."
So, there you go: It's purely coincidental that Daly and Seacrest will be back Sunday night for their second annual New Year's Eve programming duel, which threatens to become an annual rite as the 77-year-old Clark -- another broadcaster-turned-producer who made his name breaking pop-music acts in TV -- continues his recovery from a 2004 stroke.
Clark, of course, has repackaged the Times Square madness for the homebound masses nearly every Dec. 31 since 1972, when he was considered the youthful interloper horning in on the turf of Guy Lombardo, the bandleader who popularized "Auld Lang Syne."
This year, Seacrest, Clark's heir apparent as well as Simon Cowell's sparring partner on "American Idol," will again do the heavy lifting in the booth for "Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve 2007," ABC's 3 1/2 -hour extravaganza starting at 10 p.m. The chief competition will consist of "NBC's New Year's Eve With Carson Daly, Presented by Chevrolet," which starts at 11:30 p.m. ("Presented by Chevrolet?" That could furnish Alec Baldwin's unctuous GE executive with a nifty little scene on an upcoming episode of "30 Rock.")
Last year's "Rockin' Eve" was Clark's first national TV appearance since the stroke, which he admitted to viewers had left him "in bad shape": "My speech is not perfect, but I'm getting there," he added.
Newspaper and blog opinion was divided on the wisdom of having the former "American Bandstand" host crop up on the show when he was visibly unsteady and sometimes difficult to understand; for perhaps the first time in his career, the preternaturally youthful Clark couldn't beat time. But his condition seemed to have improved a bit when he turned up for a short tribute at the Emmys in August, and he's saved himself at least a small role again on this year's "Rockin' Eve."
"He is the most comfortable and at ease when doing these shows," Seacrest explained in an interview. "These shows are like kids to him, his babies." (Seacrest speaks of "Rockin' Eve" with the pride of a scion taking over the family business: "It's a heritage operation," he said.)
But really, why all this TV succession drama on New Year's Eve? Can't the networks just take the night off? Aren't there too few sober people planted on their sofas for television execs to bother with, anyway?
To answer the last two: no and no.
Broadcasters started tussling for exclusive rights to the nation's No. 1 party night almost as soon as the medium was invented. Lombardo's radio telecasts from New York, which started in 1929, proved so popular that an unusual agreement was struck for CBS to broadcast the first part up until midnight, when NBC would take over.
The holiday's importance has since grown along with the media industry, which seldom misses an opportunity these days to lock down viewer loyalty. Last year's ratings make it depressingly clear that when the last night of the year rolls around, many of us still have nothing better to do than ... yes, watch more TV.
The one-hour block of "Rockin' Eve" that started at 11:35 p.m. last year averaged 20.1 million total viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research -- a large audience by any yardstick, and gargantuan by the standards of late-night TV. Daly's show, clearly the underdog, averaged 7.3 million viewers during the same period. That's still impressive when you remember that NBC's No. 1 rated "Tonight Show With Jay Leno" typically averages about 5 million.
Planting the flag on New Year's "really brands a network," said Tim Brooks, a TV historian and executive vice president of research at Lifetime Entertainment. "It helps promote and drive people to other programs. It's one of the things that makes networks special to people." And you can't get any cheaper programming-wise than training live cameras on drunk revelers at 44th Street and Broadway. Times Square on New Year's Eve might be the original reality show.
"Rockin' Eve" essentially consists of two parts: musical performances, some taped in advance, and the dropping of the ball, which viewers see live in the Eastern and Central time zones. The producers put a premium on big "gets"; last year Mariah Carey, the queen of mainstream pop, was the headline attraction. Sunday's roster includes the Carey-esque diva Christina Aguilera, country pop group Rascal Flatts and hip-hop queen Fergie. "It's a little bit of a circus," said Larry Klein, the program's executive producer.
Someday, Seacrest will presumably take over the franchise completely. But he's aware that at the moment the fancy car he drives is borrowed rather than bought. Of Clark, he said: "He and I have a great relationship. Whatever he wants to do, whether he wants to do more or less than last year, I'll do it."
Daly, former host of MTV's "TRL" and current host of NBC's late-night talkfest "Last Call," is going after a cooler, hipper vibe on his New Year's Eve show, which is decidedly not a heritage operation. The tunes will come from alternative rockers like Panic! at the Disco and OK Go, acts probably found on far fewer iPods than Fergie. The Daly camp doesn't take long to cast some college-rock aspersions at "Rockin' Eve:" "I mean, how many times have I heard Fergie sing 'Superlicious' or whatever she sings?" said David Friedman, Daly's executive producer. (Daly's cool cred isn't totally intact, though: Shortly before last year's show, the gossip blog Defamer leaked a transcript of NBC's script and then, for good measure, ripped Daly and Seacrest as "arguably talent-free.")
But the more important goal, Daly said, is to cover the Times Square party as a unique live story. So NBC will deliberately tone down the music to focus more on the crowds, the confetti, the insanity of it all. "There's this huge event happening that night," Daly said. "Why take eyeballs away from that?"
Of course, Daly has some way to go before his program poses a serious ratings threat to "Rockin' Eve." But he's willing to take the long view. After all, the odds at one time looked pretty bad for Dick Clark's assault on Fort Lombardo.
"It's about us staking a claim," Daly said, "and trying to build a tradition."
The Channel Island column runs every Monday in Calendar. Scott Collins' television blog of the same name is at latimes.com/channelisland. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org