The holiday season has long been notorious for spiking the suicide rate, and I strongly suspect the apocalyptic images flickering on TV screens as 2005 drew to a close sent more than the usual number in desperate search of sleeping pills, razor blades or the nearest high-rise window. In case you hadn't noticed, New Year's Eve has been hijacked by the forces of dorkness and transmuted from a one or two network-based hoedown of harmless living-room revelry into a massive cathode feeding frenzy in which legions of networks and cable entities vie for the right to Dick Clark's rockin' throne. Believe it or not, that isn't even the saddest part.
The really gloomy news is, I reported in this column last January that Ryan Seacrest, of all sentient beings, had actually stated in the presence of reporters, "When it's time to say 'OK, here's the show and the guy that is going to be around on New Year's Eve for years to come,' I would definitely like to be the one that the baton gets passed to." Now, a year later, I must report the television gods have given him the green light.
There he was in a December 27 photograph printed in newspapers from coast to coast. It accompanied the story of ABC's announcement that the 76-year-old broadcasting legend and recovering stroke victim would return to co-host this year's edition of "Dick Clark's Prime Time New Year's Rockin' Eve" with Hillary Duff and Seacrest. Of course, the image turned out to be a fake. The network evidently Photoshopped an old graphic of Clark into a shot of Duff and Seacrest posing together.
Unfortunately, the headline was true. Clark was indeed passing the baton to his successor. Naming him, at any rate.
Please, would somebody give Ryan Seacrest's skull a thorough exam? There's got to be a "666" hidden somewhere under those carefully tousled highlights. How else to explain the "American Idol" host's meteoric rise to broadcast prominence? It certainly has nothing to do with talent. He doesn't sing. He doesn't dance. He doesn't act, tell jokes, play a musical instrument, write, or do anything even remotely creative, to the best of my knowledge. Many contestants who've performed on the "Idol" stage have been infinitely more gifted. "Seacrest out!" seems to be the sum total of his creative output to date. Assuming, that is, he came up with the catchphrase himself.
Maybe the answer can be found in recent ruminations: "Knowing that I had been studying the Dick Clark model," he reflected to a Gannett interviewer last month, "I thought it would be the perfect next step, whenever he wasn't doing it or didn't want to do it. I wanted to be the 'go-to' guy. Then, about six or seven months ago, it was brought to my attention that there was interest in me being part of the Dick Clark production team, as a producer and possibly as an on-air talent. It really is the one [opportunity] in my mind and in my overall thinking of what I want to do in my career I couldn't say no to."
So that's what Ryan Seacrest does between seasons of "American Idol" -- he studies the Dick Clark model. What the hell is that supposed to mean? In his overall thinking about what he wants to do with his life, emceeing a Times Square countdown special has loomed large in his master plan? Who walks around thinking these things, much less uttering them out loud?
You'd never have suspected the 31-year-old was fulfilling a lifelong ambition or executing a long-pondered stratagem as you watched him at work on New Year's Eve. His presentation and his broadcast's production were all but indistinguishable from those of his competitors. And they, presumably, haven't devoted years to studying the Dick Clark model. On NBC, for example, Carson Daly demonstrated, for the second year in a row, that being a personality no longer requires having one. All these shows follow pretty much the same formula at this point: Canned banter, crowd shots and performances by musicians with product to push -- in this case, most notably, Puff Daddy, or whatever the rapper is calling himself these days.
"New Year's Eve Live" (a funny thing to call a show like this, if you think about it) over at Fox had perennial "go-to" guy Regis Philbin standing out in the cold and pushing record industry product with a countdown of the year's biggest songs.
Anderson Cooper did the honors once again for CNN. Apparently the network can't decide whether it wants to market the poor guy as a tough but sensitive news reporter or as an all-around media huggy bear. (Just kidding about the "poor" part -- he's the son of socialite moneybags Gloria Vanderbilt.) Cooper's popularity shot up in the wake of his Katrina coverage, so it was probably no coincidence his New Year's broadcast had a bit of Cajun flavor. In between performances by James Brown and "Idol" alum Fantasia, he threw it to New Orleans megachef Paul Prud-homme. There's a reason Prudhomme is a cook and not an entertainer.
MTV hosted its traditional year-end blow out, which consisted of popular tunes sung by such top-selling acts as Kanye West, Shakira, Fall Out Boy and All American Rejects. Otherwise known as exactly what the music channel does every other day of the year. Hey, pop songs on MTV -- it's a holiday miracle!
But it was a tad disorienting to come across essentially the same spectacle for the first time on ESPN. I checked to see if we hadn't downed more of the bubbly than I'd thought but, sure enough, there was The Boss' buddy, Little Steven Van Zandt, joining a bunch of garage bands as part of the network's sporty countdown to 2006.
Also in the "Precisely What Is the Connection to New Year's Eve?" category: a special on Comedy Central, a festive "What Not to Wear" marathon on TLC, and "Happy Crüe Year: Carnival of Sins," a pay-per-view "gift" from Tommy Lee and the guys.
I wasn't about to pay for the privilege of viewing musical acts, given it was virtually impossible to find a channel not broadcasting them. But I wouldn't be surprised to learn the Motley Crüe production was a livelier time than the one Seacrest co-hosted. Bon Jovi ("from their home town of New Jersey"), Mariah Carey, 3 Doors Down and The Bangles, among others, did little to keep the sleepies at bay. Ditto with the Ryanator's electrifying history lesson about Thomas Edison showcasing the light bulb during a New Year's Eve celebration in 1879, and nonstop plugs for Disney, ABC's parent company.
As the show broke for the local news, though, Seacrest did finally say something interesting: "Next, we've got Dick Clark returning after his year off." Forty or so minutes later, there he was. At the bottom of the screen a disclaimer read, "Portions Recorded." An old pro like Clark wasn't about to attempt a high-wire act like this without a net, and who could blame him? Since his 2004 stroke, he's been learning how to talk again, and clearly still has a way to go. But you had to give him credit for a brave attempt to seem breezy and enthusiastic about another year's passing. If there was a shred of dignity and truth anywhere on the dial that night, Clark was it.
The television gods weren't through with Seacrest, though. No sooner had Clark granted Seacrest his succession wish than E! Entertainment Television announced it had signed him to a three-year, $21 million deal. That's when I realized it must be me. It's far more plausible that I'm missing something than that the entire universe is driven by absurd, capricious and demonically tasteless forces.
At any rate, there is an upside. Seacrest's deal will have him developing and producing shows in addition to performing red-carpet duties à la Joan Rivers at events such as the upcoming Golden Globes. We're finally going to see what he's learned from all those years of studying the Dick Clark model. Say what you will about them, Clark created a long list of successful broadcasts and had a significant impact on the medium over the past half-century. He invented dozens of concepts and formats. Ryan Seacrest has proven he's up to the task of introducing hit records on a weekly radio program called "American Top 40" and reading off a TelePrompTer. For the first time in his charmed career, he'll have to prove he can create.
My guess is, a deafening blast will rock Los Angeles in the coming weeks. No, it won't be the work of evildoers -- just the sound of Seacrest's brain exploding.