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ABC, Fox ring in the newby relying on old standbys

NEW YORK -- New Year's Eve is the biggest party night of the year, and television is among the most youth-obsessed media, so guess who will be the top hosts this weekend when the ball drops in Times Square?

A couple of guys in their 70s.

Dick Clark and Regis Philbin have long cultivated a sort of ageless appeal, and that will be put to the test during New Year's Eve specials on ABC and Fox, respectively. Clark partner Ryan Seacrest and NBC's Carson Daly are also on duty. The septuagenarian send-off to 2005 is particularly rich in irony. ABC and Fox are among those TV networks that usually pretend people over age 50 don't exist.

''Regis can do anything these young punks can do," said Philbin, 74. ''I fit right in there with my Fox people. They want Regis to dance, Regis will dance. They want Regis to lift weights with them, Regis will lift weights with them. Whatever they want!"

Good thing he's bringing a fighting spirit, because the lineup of performers Fox has given him -- Nick Cannon, Tyler Hilton, and John O'Hurley -- is awfully thin.

The fact that Clark, 76, is now the father figure of New Year's Eve is a vivid example of how time flies. He started ''New Year's Rockin' Eve" in 1972 as a hipper alternative to Guy Lombardo.

Despite increased competition, it's still the dominant show of the evening. This year, ''Rockin' Eve" adds a curiosity factor: It will be Clark's first appearance on television since he suffered a stroke last December. Philbin was his emergency sub last year.

Rumors that Clark would not appear again have been fueled by his decision not to give interviews and a doctored publicity photo distributed by ABC that inserts an image of a pre-stroke Clark supposedly standing next to cohosts Ryan Seacrest and Hilary Duff. Clark's representatives insist he will be in Times Square this week. Clark can do as much or as little as he wants, Seacrest said.

''For those who have grown up watching him, they want to see him," he said. ''But we haven't nailed down exactly what he's going to do."

Seacrest will be with Clark in New York, while fellow cohost Hilary Duff will anchor and perform in a Hollywood segment. ABC nailed the night's biggest booking, Mariah Carey, who's set to perform in Times Square.

The Bangles, Chris Brown, Sean Paul, the Pussycat Dolls, Sugarland, 3 Doors Down, and 311 will also be part of ABC's party.

Seacrest spent the last few years competing against Clark on Fox. But this year he signed a deal with Clark and ABC to coproduce the show and essentially become Clark's heir apparent. The hope is that Seacrest will seamlessly take over when Clark steps down.

Seacrest, 31 on Christmas Eve, said he always watched ''New Year's Rockin' Eve" while growing up in Atlanta. As an adult, he's studied Clark's career and used him as a model. ''One of the reasons I wanted to do a New Year's Eve show was because Dick did a New Year's Eve show," he said.

In one sense, that's already a big victory for Seacrest over NBC's Carson Daly, 32, another Clark acolyte. Daly takes pains to avoid being seen as a competitor to Clark, even though there's a clear opportunity to paint himself as the youthful alternative. ''There will be something for everyone," Daly said. ''If my dad wants to watch Regis, and I'm sure he will, then God bless him. If my brother, who's my age -- and I know he's a big Mary J. Blige fan -- I know he'll watch my show. We're all going to have the ball drop and we're all going to have a good time."

He's been watching old tapes of -- who else? -- Clark to help prepare. Comic Wanda Sykes joins Blige as Daly's featured performers.

Prime-time champ CBS is sitting out New Year's Eve.

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