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MTV has done a lot of things since its inception two decades ago, and one of the biggest is to regularly fly in the face of tradition. Which is why it's so fitting that, ever since the network's TRL studio opened its windows onto Times Square, MTV has staged its own New Year's Eve special to counter that most stalwart of shows down the block, Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve. Tomorrow night, MTV looks back on the year that was—the Punks, the platypus, the pop icons' liplock—and recruits pop darling Hilary Duff and a slew of other performers to help ring in 2004 at the nighttime bash. We recently spoke to executive producer Mike Powers, the man behind the scenes of all this rock 'n' roll revelry, about his role in staging the last MTV party of the year.
Let's start by talking a bit about the show. How many years has it been running now? What's on deck for this year?
We've been doing New Year's since we moved into our studio, which was '97 or something like that. This is my first year doing the show. Simple Plan is going to do a medley of their own songs, and then they have a special surprise performance at midnight. Hilary Duff is doing two songs, she's also co-hosting. Clay Aiken is doing two songs. And Ludacris is doing two songs at the ABC building. At ABC's studios across the street, about six flights up, there's a roof space, and Ludacris is going to be up there performing out to the masses in Times Square, which is going to look really cool.
A couple of years ago, you guys premiered the 'N Sync "Girlfriend" video just after midnight. Do you have anything like that planned?
We don't have any video premieres, but one really cool thing we're doing is an MC Battle of the Champions—two guys going head to head, rhyming, and we pick a big winner. We did two MC battles this year, one in the spring, one in the fall, and we have two great champs so far, Reign Man and Wrekonize. So now we're going to pit the two champs together and have them battle it out for MC supremacy.
So this being your first year, it's basically a trial by fire for you. What's your role in all this?
My role is to oversee the production and the logistics of the show. And, you know, it's equally challenging on both the creative level and the logistics level. This is one of our hairiest shows when it comes to dealing with not just the city and the police, but dealing with the Times Square Business Improvement Department. The BID basically puts on this giant party out in Times Square, and we try to coordinate with them, figure out ways for us to keep that crowd entertained. They in turn put some of our programming on all the screens in Times Square, and they pump our audio out to those people, so it really feels like we're at the center of everything for the night, which is great.
But you share the spotlight with an American icon. What's it like going up against the Dick Clark special?
We feel like our show is definitely the most exciting and fresh and live. I'm not sure if Dick Clark is live the entire night—maybe some stuff is pre-taped, I don't even know, I can't speak to that—but we're live the whole night, and all of our acts are performing in Times Square. So we feel like we own the evening, in a way, and give people the best programming from the center of it all.
Do you feel it's ironic that the Dick Clark special is called New Year's Rockin' Eve and then you guys have this huge, and very rockin', show going on?
Well, certainly Dick Clark's not going to do an MC battle.
What's it like putting this on in Times Square? Obviously it's more exciting, but is it also a lot harder? Do you hire big thugs to keep the crowd controlled?
No, the cops are in charge of all the crowd control. I don't know if you've ever experienced it, but they do the most amazing job. They have everyone divided into pens, so if there's trouble in the crowd, it's isolated to that one particular pen, and it's a more manageable group of people. So the cops are really great. They have it down to a science. We work with them, and they help us out as far as getting all of our talent into the building. All the streets are closed around Times Square, but it's actually not that difficult to get around once the crowd is in their pens. It's really well-organized. And it's exciting. I mean, it's so great to have a view of the ball and to be in the middle of this party, but to be inside where it's warm and toasty. It's such a wonderful experience.
How do kids get into the studio, for people who are attending these performances?
Well, we pre-select all of our crowd. We don't pick people out of the crowd that night and bring them in.
So it's not like TRL?
No, logistically that would be a nightmare. We do casting, and we have people out there looking for kids who are really excited to come to the show, and they arrive separately from the rest of the Times Square crowd. They go to a specific point with their special passes and they get to come inside, and they love it. It's so fun to be in Times Square, but not freezing to death really helps. And we have such a great view of everything. When midnight strikes, it's just ridiculous looking, it's so cool.
How many people besides you are involved in this? When does the planning start for such a big event?
The planning starts around September. There's probably a staff of about 30 people, give or take, for a while, some not necessarily full-time. But then once we get into November, then everyone's pretty much full-time on it. We have one group of people working on the creative and the format: How are we going to position our performances? What else are we doing that evening? So we come up with things like OK, we're going to team up with People magazine, and we're going to look at the best and worst celebrity makeovers for the year, and the best and worst celebrity styles, that type of thing. We come up with fun segment ideas, like the MC Battle. We know we're going to have performances, we're going to interview various celebrities who come by for the party. There's a lot of things we know, but then we just try to add as much content as possible for the rest of the evening.
I know that because the studios are right in the middle of everything, celebrities tend to just stop by these MTV events. Do you allow that kind of ad lib thing to happen on New Year's Eve? Is there that element of surprise or is everything planned out?
Well, we pretty much have to know they're coming or they'll never get in. People start trickling in late October and through November, and then even this month we keep getting people confirmed. Erika Christensen is going to come by, and the cast of One Tree Hill, and there's still a couple offers pending.
You have a ton of newly minted MTV stars this year. Do they have any part in this?
Nick and Jessica are doing something for the open of our show. And then, really, our VJs—folks that are getting more and more recognition for what they do every day on TRL—they're going to be huge stars for us this night, too. We're doing kind of an ensemble hosting crew, so it's Damien and La La, Vanessa Manilo, and Hilarie Burton, and Quddus, and then Hilary Duff.
Obviously this is a big event for the people who come down to Times Square. But everyone is reporting that people are itching to go out this year. How do you get people to stay at home and watch the show? Who is the show aimed at?
It's aimed at a fairly broad audience, like a lot of our programming. We have such a great mix of performers—with Ludacris and Hilary Duff and Clay and Simple Plan—that I think is appealing to a broad range of folks. Hell, if people who live in the New York area or wherever want to come be a part of it live down at Times Square, more power to 'em. It's a once in a lifetime opportunity. But for folks who don't want to stand all day and freeze their butts off, we'll pretty much give them the entire vibe at home—everything they need to see and feel and experience on New Year's Eve in Times Square. But it's really just so exciting to be here—for the people working it, too—it's definitely a once in a lifetime experience.
Jill Singer is deputy editor of mediabistro.com. Image courtesy of MTV.