No Crowds in Times Square, but CNN’s New Year’s Eve Show Must Go On

Courtesy of CNN

When Anderson Cooper and Andy Cohen try to show CNN viewers the sights and sounds of New Year’s Eve in Times Square this year, they will face one of their biggest challenges: There won’t be any.

The throngs of people who come to see the fabled ball drop in what is billed as New York’s “Crossroads of the World” won’t be in attendance, due to concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. For Cooper and Cohen, however, the show must go on.

People at home will want to watch and ring out a terrible year, says Cooper. “We want it to be a New Year’s Eve without all the mishegoss. You don’t have to have all the sturm and drang. You can just stay home and watch us go through it,” he says, in an interview. Besides, says Cohen, “I certainly pledge to get Anderson as drunk as I can —  and which isn’t hard to do, I should add, as we have seen from previous years.”

That yin-and-yang chemistry has fueled CNN’s annual end-of-the-year coverage for the last few cycles. Cohen will say whatever pops into his head, while Cooper tries to maintain some reserve (by the end of the night, he often fails). Viewers in 2019 watched in real time as Cooper reacted badly to chugging a shot of Jägermeister.

Now, says Eric Hall, who has produced the program for the past five years, there’s more to focus on than the duo’s live-without-a-net antics. “For the first time ever, viewers are going to see a crowd-less Times Square,” says Hall. “I just think that’s going to be not only historic, but surreal. We really have to show that scene — that story — to viewers during this pretty awful time.”

CNN isn’t the only network left to depict a New Year’s Eve in Times Square that will lack some of its central elements. Both ABC and NBC plan star-studded events from Times Square led, respectively, by Ryan Seacrest and Carson Daly. And while Seacrest’s ABC tradition is typically the most-watched of TV’s “auld lang syne” crowd, CNN’s New Year’s sendoff has become a long-running TV ritual.

CNN takes pride in delivering real, unscripted moments of the sort viewers probably won’t see elsewhere.  Glitzier New Year’s efforts often rely on pre-taped segments, notes Cohen, a former programming executive at Bravo who is also a producer, and CNN stays with the scene as it unfolds. “There are ebbs and flows” in live coverage, Cohen notes, but on CNN “what you’ve got is the real stuff, and I think that the fact we are on live the entire time gives it a real sense of purpose and fun and authenticity.”

CNN does have some ideas to help keep things in motion. Don Lemon and Brooke Baldwin, two anchors whose New Year’s Eve appearances in the past have spurred viewers to ask about their levels of inebriation, will hold forth from an undisclosed location, says Hall. They will also pick up hosting duties from Cooper and Cohen at 12:30 a.m. Another correspondent will be getting a tattoo live, Hall says, and a third will hold forth from a socially distanced dance party 100 stories above New York City. Another will be reporting while surrounded by 150 puppies.

And technology will allow celebrities and notables to “visit” Cooper and Cohen in Times Square in “virtual” fashion. To viewers, they might look like holograms.

“Every year is an adventure, and in its own different way,” says Hall.

More than 100 CNN staffers will help keep the New Year’s ball rolling. CNN correspondents Ana Cabrera, Stephanie Elam, Randi Kaye, Richard Quest, Gary Tuchman (who usually brings his daughter, Lindsay Tuchman, a correspondent for Charter Communications NY1), and Bill Weir will be among them. Scheduled guests include John Mayer, Snoop Dogg, Patti Labelle, Jimmy Buffett, Carole Baskin, Josh Groban, Leslie Jordan, Dulce Sloan, Desus & Mero, Kylie Minogue, Aloe Blacc, Goo Goo Dolls and Jon Bon Jovi.

For Cooper and Cohen New Year’s Eve might be like any other day — well, almost. Both men are longtime friends who are part of a coronavirus social bubble that allows their two young children to play together, and viewers are likely to see their off-screen rapport on camera. “Anderson and I have spent more time singing ‘Wheels on the Bus’ over and over to our kids than anyone might imagine,” says Cohen. “We definitely have a shorthand with each other.”

Cooper believes most New Year’s Eve viewers just need a friend. That’s the reason he originally started hosting the CNN broadcast 15 years ago. New Year’s Eve is often “too difficult, too stressful to go out. There’s something mildly depressing about it. It often ends badly for a lot of people,” says Cooper. But the Times Square broadcast, he believes, can help audiences celebrate without risking a bad night. “It’s two people standing out in the cold and rain and watching things happen. Funny things happen, and plenty of things happen, and that’s it. It’s a fun night out, and that’s really all you can seek for New Year’s Eve.”