Because hell hath no fury like a TV executive beaten to the punch, Fox has signed ABC star Regis Philbin to host its New Year's Eve show, three months after ABC signed Fox star Ryan Seacrest to host its New Year's Eve show.

Dick Clark, whose name is synonymous with "New Year's Rockin' Eve," is recovering from a stroke that kept him from hosting the show last year. He is scheduled to appear with Seacrest this year, though Seacrest's deal calls for him to take over as solo host down the road. Last year Philbin, who headlines ABC's "Regis & Kelly" and who hosted ABC's monster hit "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" until the network ran it into the ground, filled in for Clark on Dec. 31.

But in August, ABC announced it had signed Seacrest, not Regis, to host this year's "New Year's Rockin' Eve" with Clark, and to host the program alone after that.

Seacrest is host of Fox's most important series, "American Idol," and for the past three years has hosted that network's New Year's Eve special.

The development was a rare situation: Usually it is Fox that sticks it to the other networks -- as when ABC announced "Wife Swap" would join its prime-time lineup, only to have Fox slap "Trading Spouses" together and get it on the air first.

Or when, almost immediately after ABC said it had sealed the deal to broadcast the reality series "Supernanny," reports surfaced that Fox was talking to Granada about picking up rights to make "Nanny 911" -- which Fox got on the air first.

And who can forget when NBC announced with fanfare that it was doing a reality series called "The Contender" with Mark Burnett, DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg and Sylvester Stallone, then watched in horror as Fox went into overdrive developing "The Next Great Champ" and got that show on the air first?

So yesterday it was no surprise, but kind of sad, when Fox announced it had recruited Rege for the latest round of this slugfest. He's been signed to host Fox's New Year's Eve program even though he hasn't been in Fox's target demographic since more than a decade before Ryan Seacrest was born.

The trade papers yesterday quoted Mike Darnell, Fox's executive vice president of alternative programming, as saying he was surprised that ABC didn't try to get Philbin for "New Year's Rockin' Eve."

Darnell, an aging juvenile delinquent -- and we mean that in the best possible sense -- is, as Willy S. liked to say, the guy who caused the knotted and combined locks to part on the heads of suits at the other networks and each particular hair to stand on end, like quills upon the fretful porpentine, with those guerrilla reality-series strategies.

Darnell told Variety that "age doesn't matter around the holidays" because "Dick Clark slaughters everyone in 18-49 and 18-34" demographics on New Year's Eve.

In August, ABC snagged Fox's Ryan Seacrest to host "New Year's Rockin' Eve" . . .

. . . and now Fox has retaliated by signing ABC's Regis Philbin to do its New Year's show.