The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion No Times Square New Year’s crowd? No problem.

A sport-utility vehicle delivers the "2021" New Year's Eve numerals during a coast-to-coast tour in Times Square on Monday in New York. (Michael Nagle/Bloomberg)

Richard Zoglin is the author of “Elvis in Vegas: How the King Reinvented the Las Vegas Show.”

The pandemic has thrown a monkey wrench into live entertainment of all sorts this year. But TV’s annual New Year’s Eve festivities promise to be more dispiriting than most.

The Times Square celebration will be closed to the public this year, but that won’t stop the usual parade of celebrities and musical stars from showing up as if nothing were amiss. Jennifer Lopez will be the headliner for the midnight countdown on “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve,” ABC’s 5½-hour special now hosted by Ryan Seacrest. Carson Daly will once again helm the festivities on NBC, while Anderson Cooper and Andy Cohen handle the chores on CNN. But when the ball drops to ring in the new year, there won’t even be a costumed Spider-Man on the streets below to cheer it on.

It will hardly matter. Indeed, TV’s crowd-free New Year’s Eve will be somehow fitting — the logical extension of the medium’s transformation of our holiday traditions in ways that seem to have actually foreshadowed the pandemic. One by one over the past few years, nearly every seasonal milestone or holiday ritual has been gussied up and swamped with so much TV production that the event itself is rendered all but irrelevant. Well before the pandemic, TV had taken our holiday celebrations virtual.

Consider the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Once upon a time, you might recall, it was an actual parade — floats of Snoopy and Garfield gliding down Broadway, accompanied by awed commentary from a battery of TV hosts. Gradually, however, the event has devolved into a series of made-for-TV musical numbers, staged for the cameras at the parade’s endpoint in Herald Square.

This year, of course, the spectators were missing, and the parade was reduced to a one-block jaunt as each float trundled up to Macy’s for its camera-ready moment. Some performers were on scene, but several numbers were staged from remote locations in the theater district. I doubt many viewers could tell the difference.

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The annual lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree has been similarly overwhelmed by TV folderol. The tree lighting was once a relatively modest, real-time event, with a little local TV coverage to mark the start of New York’s Christmas tourist season. NBC turned it into a one-hour national special for the first time in 1998. Two years ago, the show was expanded to a bloated two hours of holiday music and plugs for NBC shows and stars — an awful lot of Holly, Jolly Christmases to endure while waiting for the electrician, or someone like him, to pull a switch.

The Rock Center crowds were absent this year, but it hardly dampened the celebration. A few performers showed up in the empty plaza, but the majority — Dolly Parton in Nashville, Kelly Clarkson in Los Angeles — were ensconced in warm studios far, far away. The tree-lighting itself, coming just minutes before the end of the show, was a wan anticlimax. I was clearing dishes and missed it.

The Times Square ball drop on New Year’s Eve has followed a similar trajectory of TV inflation. It was initiated in 1907 by New York Times publisher Adolph Ochs, as a way to publicize the newspaper’s new Times Square headquarters. For many years, it was a little more than a punctuation mark for Ben Grauer’s New Year’s Eve broadcasts and, later, a signal for Guy Lombardo’s orchestra at the Waldorf Astoria to strike up “Auld Lang Syne.” Now, the ball drop draws more than a million people into Times Square and provides a one-minute centerpiece for hours and hours of TV revelry.

With crowds barred from Times Square, Thursday night’s celebration will be a hollow end to a horrible year. But at least it will take one overhyped holiday tradition down a peg. The slo-mo descent of the giant Waterford crystal ball might be a spectacle for the folks who jam into Times Square in the freezing cold, but on TV it’s a fairly ridiculous sight. Why, I’ve always wondered, is the ball going down and not up? Aren’t we supposed to be optimistic about the new year? Especially this one.

Oh, well. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that you don’t need a crowd as an excuse for a party. Sometimes you don’t even need an excuse. All you need is Ryan Seacrest, and let the virtual confetti fly.

Read more:

Cartoon: A Herblock Christmas

Alexandra Petri: Various authors describe 2020

Kate Cohen: All I want for Christmas are covid-19 mandates

Max Boot: No vaccine can end America’s pandemic of ignorance and irrationality

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