It's hard to believe this now, but New Year's Rockin' Eve was once a rebellious challenger to the TV establishment.
Back in the early '70s, the bandleader Guy Lombardo had spent almost 50 years as the only New Year's game in town. First on the radio and then on TV, he broadcast a show from New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel that featured people in fancy clothes dancing to standards. Dick Clark, who had made a name for himself hosting the pop music program American Bandstand, suspected a New Year's event that played rock songs would appeal to teenagers and challenge the big band behemoth.
He was right. Clark's show debuted on New Year's Eve 1973, and it soon became an establishment itself. And as New Year's Rockin' Eve prepares for its 47th edition this year (just one fewer than Lombardo's show ultimately ran), no real competitors are in sight. In fact, there's reason to suspect Clark's program will keep a perpetual stranglehold on the holiday.
For one thing, instead of trying to upend the Rockin' Eve format, almost every other network with New Year's programming has simply copied it. Anyone with a TV knows the formula: one or two hosts in expensive winter coats stand on a platform in Times Square, introducing both lip synced musical performances from artists outside and pre-recorded segments from artists in other cities. Eventually, everyone cuts to the images of the ball coming down, and then they treat us to clips of Times Square crowds kissing and cheering in a confetti hurricane.
By now, this is staler than week-old Christmas cookies, but it doesn't have to be this way. Yes, the ball has been dropping since 1907, but there's always room for counterprogramming — just ask fans of the Puppy Bowl. One assumes that if they wanted to, Anderson Cooper, Steve Harvey, and Jimmy Kimmel could do something other than copy Clark's original template. The fact that they don't implies a laziness that's probably being excused under the banner of "tradition."
And speaking of that: Clark died in 2012, but his company Dick Clark Productions seems determined to keep Rockin' Eve exactly as it's always been. After all, Clark himself is still in the name, which is officially Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve with Ryan Seacrest. There are Fiona Apple album titles that are easier to parse. This word salad suggests that corporate interests and brand curation have forced us to stay stuck in the past.
They've kept Ryan Seacrest there, too. When he started co-hosting the show with Clark back in 2006, he was clearly being groomed as the heir apparent. That made sense, as Seacrest had not only built a major radio career (just like Clark), but also helped American Idol become a new generation's answer to American Bandstand. Yet Clark never stepped aside. Even after he suffered a debilitating stroke, he kept appearing on the broadcast, and by the end, it created the uncomfortable assertion that the king was refusing to relinquish his throne.
Seacrest still hasn't done anything to distinguish his take on New Year's Eve, and while it's possible his corporate bosses won't let him, it's also possible he actually prefers to keep the old ship running. Or perhaps he's getting paid too much to give a damn about any of this. But whatever the reason, he will likely never rebut Clark the way Clark rebutted Lombardo.
All of which shortchanges the viewers. Sure, the show and its imitators still pull good numbers, but does anyone really watch them with enthusiasm? Isn't it a telling sign that they only get noticed in the larger culture when something goes wrong, like Kathy Griffin telling a semi-scandalous joke, or Mariah Carey having a semi-meltdown? Otherwise, one suspects most people are just keeping them on mute in the background, except for the ten seconds when they become a reliable countdown clock to midnight.
But what if someone really did try something else? What if there were a New Year's program that acknowledged how young people consume media now? Or that did literally anything different? Here's hoping someone tries, because a surprise like that would create hope for the year ahead.
Mark Blankenship is a critic and reporter who has contributed to The New York Times, Variety, and many others. Tweet him at @IAmBlankenship.