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Inside CNN’s Frenzied and Sometimes Freaky New Year’s Eve

New Year’s Eve is the night on which most CNN anchors let their hair down. Well, except for Anderson Cooper.

Cooper has been CNN’s on-air host for New Year’s Eve since 2002, and his most memorable moments from the stint typically surface as he tries to rein in others who appear with him – hoping Kathy Griffin will tone down her antics, reacting to Don Lemon in New Orleans, and, most recently, trying to keep current co-host Andy Cohen from going overboard with visitors.

“I just try to keep the trains running on time,” says Cooper during a recent interview. “It’s always some sort of disaster waiting to happen, whether it’s Andy insulting one of the guests by asking a question that a guest has no desire to be asked about — and so, yeah, I wince at things a lot, I guess.”

Cooper is typically demure, but he has helped CNN’s New Year’s Eve coverage develop into a long-running TV tradition. While Ryan Seacrest commands a significantly larger audience over at ABC, Cooper has held his New Year’s Eve duties longer (Seacrest took the reins from the legendary Dick Clark in 2006). Yes, Fox News Channel, Fox Broadcasting and NBC also hold New Year’s celebrations on air, but Cooper’s annual presence in Times Square has become as much a part of the nation’s “Auld Lang Syne” as anything else.

“I was surprised by what a big night it is,” recounts Cohen. “I had people coming up to me for days before on the street. It really is a universally watched event for all demographics.”

The event also feels different for CNN, which has found itself as much a part of the President Trump-dominated news cycle as the White House or Congress. On New Year’s Eve, viewers get to see odd sights from around the country, and for years, an appearance by CNN correspondent Gary Tuchman and his daughter, Lindsay, an anchor for Charter Communiations’ NY1 in New York, as they chronicle offbeat activities in different parts of the United States. CNN’s New Year’s coverage has expanded over the years. Once just half an hour, it now lasts around five.

The New Year’s Eve broadcast – built on a premise of Cooper in Times Square anchoring feeds from various CNN correspondents around the country – breaks convention. One recent promo for the event shows primetime anchor Chris Cuomo doing pull-ups and depicts a “Cuomo Muscle Drink.” Another looks a lot like a cheesy 1970’s style direct response commercial and urges viewers to call 1-844-NYE-2018 to get an “AC Squared Party Kit.” Those who dial will hear Cohen tell them that it’s not a real product, then urge them to tune in on December 31.

No James Earl Jones. No “Facts First.” For one night, this is CNN.

The two co-hosts say they have honed their rapport since first appearing together last year. They’ve worked out the kinks. Cohen vows to stop complaining about the weather. “I think we are going to have more fun this year,” says Cooper. “We’ll be more ourselves.” The two travel together frequently on a national tour, and “we have a shorthand with each other,” says Cohen, that the audience will see in greater doses.

Cooper says he admires Cohen’s ability to turn anything into an adventure. And then he rattles off a crazy anecdote about the Bravo host taking pictures of people on a rooftop near Cohen’s apartment, then meeting up with them after posting their antics on Instagram. “In a million years, I would not have gone over, and Andy, of course, wasn’t having it. Andy said that every friend was once a stranger, so I went,” Cooper recalls. “He still surprises me with stuff.”

New Year’s Eve on CNN often brings other surprises. After Cooper signs off, Brooke Baldwin and Don Lemon host a more raucous half hour from New Orleans. They’ve been paired together since 2015, and often make their own headlines. One year, Lemon got his ear pierced on live TV, and he has been spotted having a few drinks.

“Let’s just say I’m having a great time. I am in control,” says Lemon. “I do consume alcohol, but I’m never out of control.”  People want to see the anchors in the midst of New Year’s festivities, he says, not covering heavy stories if there are none at hand. And he is conscious of what he’s doing. “The idea is to have fun. What can I do that’s interesting and engaging for the audience?” Lemon adds. “I do realize if I’m going to get a tattoo, I am making that decision.”

For her part, Baldwin says her on-screen energy is natural. “My rule — and I feel like this is a pretty good rule for life–  no drinking while on television. I do not ever imbibe.”

The two have no script in front of them, no patter worked out ahead of time.  “There is zero preparation. It’s all about having fun,” says Baldwin. “We just know where we are going. Our process is he comes and finds me as I’m getting hair and makeup. We just start getting excited and roll over to the venue and take it as it comes.” This year’s plans involve a dunking booth and a tribute to Aretha Franklin. Get ready.

Cooper initially took the New Year’s Eve job because he hated going out that night. “It’s just too much pressure,” he notes. Now, his time on screen at the end of the year has almost become de rigueur.  Other New Year’s Eve countdown shows “have huge budgets, and they have so many things going on,” he says. “This is the little engine that could.”

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