Friday, January 06, 2006

A New Year, A New Vision

For the 34th consecutive year, Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve was broadcast live from Times Square in New York City on Saturday. This year’s 3 ½ hour broadcast featured the return of Dick Clark to live TV after recovering from a stroke he experienced only weeks before last year’s scheduled broadcast. TV talk show host Regis Philbin had stepped in to cover the live anchor duties for Clark at ABC’s 2004 broadcast. Last year marked the first time in 32 years that Clark was unable to carry out his traditional role in ushering in the New Year on live TV. Although I did not personally view this year’s event live due to a family commitment, I did indeed see TV video replays of Clark addressing his audience and ringing in the New Year.
For my international readers, Dick Clark is an American entertainment legend and ‘poster boy’ for our country’s obsession with drinking from the fountain of youth. Once called America’s Oldest Teenager, Clark achieved his fame and fortune as the host of American Bandstand, a live TV show broadcasting rock n’ roll music and contemporary dancing for a huge national teenage audience. American Bandstand was an immediate success and became a cultural phenomenon in America for more than three decades.
Clark’s genius and keen eye for entertainment led to his launch of Dick Clark Productions Inc. (DCPI). DCPI grew rapdily to become a diverse entertainment and communications empire in America. His company created popular entertainment shows such as TV’s Bloopers, American Music Awards, Golden Globe Awards, entertainment specials, movies-for-television, and of course, Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. DCPI also built a highly successful communications partnership with many large corporations that are household names in the United States.
Only 76 years young, Dick Clark belied his age with boyish good looks, a squeaky clean lifestyle, and a hip outlook on life. He epitomized our model of youthful living and Americans marveled at his ability to look many years younger than his actual age. In the past year, Clark had been out of the public’s eye and declined requests for interviews about his medical condition and rehabilitation. For this reason, his planned return to live TV was an event that piqued both curiosity and anticipation. There was also intense speculation in the media as to whether or not Clark was up to the challenge.
I had read about Clark’s stroke and how hard he had been working on his recovery through physical and speech therapy. Clark had forged ahead with his plans for a return to live TV despite obvious changes in his speech and physical capacities. This year, ABC planned for Clark to share his anchor duties with Ryan Seacrest from American Idol and actress Hillary Duff. Nonetheless, Clark was still the main event. With courage, he had agreed to a return to the broadcasting booth therby placing his physical and communication challenges on public display in front of a live national audience.
Seated in ABC's open air studio set at Times Square, Clark was introduced to the network’s live TV audience at 11:30 pm. He sat in his chair with one arm resting visibly on the table in front of him and the other at his side. Clark welcomed his audience, acknowledged his absence from TV, and characterized his recovery as a "long, hard fight." He was honest about his rehabilitation and need to relearn "how to walk and talk again." Clark’s speech was hoarse and a bit slowed, but quite understandable for the most part. He shared with his audience: "My speech is not perfect, but I am getting there."
According to news coverage reports, ABC had chosen to scatter Clark’s contributions throughout the evening broadcast with Seacrest and Duff handling most of the evening’s anchoring duties. However, as the clock approached midnight, it was Dick Clark ringing in the New Year on center stage with his familiar countdown from ten seconds. After the famous lighted ball had dropped, Clark leaned over and kissed his wife who was seated next to him on the studio set.
It was quite interesting to hear and read reports about Dick Clark’s appearance on the show from TV critics and viewers the following day. As one might have guessed, there were mixed reviews about Clark’s decision to go back on the air live. Some viewers thought Clark’s decision was courageous and inspirational. Others thought it was a terrible idea.
Tom Shales, a Washington Post TV critic wrote that Clark looked "seriously debilitated." He also characterized Clark’s performance with this opening statement in his column: "Viewers may well have been hoping the famous giant ball was the only thing that would drop before the night was over."
One TV viewer interviewed on a cable news broadcast put it this way: "Frankly, I would have preferred to remember Dick Clark the way he was, a youthful and handsome looking TV celebrity." And I read this comment on the Internet: "....everyone at the party I was at just fell silent when Dick Clark was on TV. It was almost like watching a bloated and ill Jerry Lewis a few years ago on the Labor Day Telethon. God bless Dick Clark, I hope you have many years left to live in comfort, but please keep the memories alive and realize it’s time to step down."
Wow! Please step aside Dick. I guess watching a formerly eloquent communicator struggle to speak with clarity makes us way too uncomfortable. Without a doubt, we all watched Clark perform through a different lens. But c'mon, a ‘bloated and ill’ Jerry Lewis?!
Clark’s performance reminded me of Muhammad Ali standing alone, shaking from the effects of Parkinson's Disease, and extending the Olympic torch to ignite the eternal flame. I saw in Clark a determined professional fighting to regain his dignity and using his skills to the very best of his ability. Needless to say, I thought Clark made the right decision.
First, his decision to return to the airwaves was clearly a strong motivating factor in his journey to recovery. And kudos to Clark for achieving this milestone. Second, his decision to return to work in such a public way communicated the importance of occupation to medical recovery and social reintegration of people with traumatic brain injuries (TBI). Finally, I was inspired by a public figure who was helping to ‘slay a dragon’ that he himself was instrumental in creating before his stroke. That is, our golden boy’s return to TV was a direct assault to this foolish illusion Americans hold about the relative importance of the "body perfect."
Just how darned good looking and suave does Dick Clark really have to be to count down from ten seconds to ring in our New Year? The irony of this occasion was not lost on me. But apparently, it was missed by many TV viewers and critics who spoke with sadness about having to watch Clark labor in his changed physical condition.
OK, I am not so naive about the brutal nature of public broadcasting. I realize TV is unforgiving and only the prettiest and most eloquent among us get to have these jobs. Perhaps live TV is not the best venue for Dick Clark to engage his occupational skills in the future? I honestly don't know. I guess only the American viewing public can answer this question through TV ratings. Still, I read in the newspaper this week that Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve beat its combined competition on this particular evening. And further, ABC’s broadcast beat last year’s show hosted by Regis Philbin by 15 percentage points. Not too shabby.
As an American entertainment icon, Dick Clark will likely have many opportunities to stay involved in the career field he loves so dearly. He has the connections and apparent self-determination to stay involved in a capacity of his choosing. Of course, I have no clue as to what Mr. Clark intends to do as an entertainer or business entrepreneur down the road. However, I do know this. On December 31, 2005, Dick Clark did more to educate the American public about working and recovery from a brain injury than the combined efforts of all advocates before him who have worked tirelessly to achieve the same goal. And for making such an important public statement in a personal way, we owe Dick Clark a huge debt of gratitude.
Clark ended his magical evening with the following comments: "I’ve had a wonderful time tonight. There’s nothing like being in Times Square on New Year’s Eve, and believe me, this is one night I will never, ever forget." Neither will six million stroke survivors and their family members. Rock on’ Dick!!

Strokes are a leading cause of disabilities in adults and the third leading cause of death. For more information about stroke prevention, treatment, and recovery, visit the the Web Site of the National Stroke Association.

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