NEW YORK — Forty years ago, Dick Clark's New Year's Eve special was created to give young people an alternative to a seasonal institution, bandleader Guy Lombardo.
Now Clark's annual show is the institution.
"New Year's Rockin' Eve," with Clark and Ryan Seacrest, pays tribute to its own history during a sprawling, nearly six-hour program Saturday night. The celebration takes up all of prime time on ABC, breaks for a half-hour of local news, then comes back on the air for two and a quarter hours that includes the ball dropping in New York City's Times Square to mark the beginning of 2012.
"I'm looking forward to it being 2:15 (a.m. on Sunday)," said Larry Klein, who has been producing the show since 1977.
Clark's special shows no sign of slippage, after collecting its biggest audience in five years last year. The 18.8 million people who were watching ABC during the last half-hour of 2010 and first half-hour of 2011 were more than NBC and Fox's audience combined, the Nielsen ratings company said.
The show isn't designed to be a recap of the year in music, but that's almost what it turns out to be, Klein said.
In all, 29 separate musical performances are planned.
This year's headliner is Lady Gaga, who gets the prime slot in Times Square in the moments before midnight. Justin Bieber, Pitbull, Hot Chelle Rae, Florence + The Machine, Gym Class Heroes, Nicki Minaj and Taio Cruz are among the other featured performers from New York and Los Angeles. Beyonce is scheduled to perform from London, where she's on tour.
It may not seem so from that lineup, but Klein said booking the show is a challenge because performers frequently are offered some of their most lucrative gigs of the year on New Year's Eve. What Clark has to offer is exposure to a large audience not often seen this side of "American Idol."
And it's unique. Klein remembers Jennifer Lopez's exhilaration a few years back after performing in Times Square despite wearing a skimpy outfit and being pelted by freezing rain.
"No matter how much I can try to explain to people what it's like to be in Times Square live, I can't do it justice," he said. "You have to experience it once in your life."
During the first two hours, ABC will show clips of performances from past New Year's Eve specials, which Klein describes as a fascinating trip through hair, clothing and musical styles. Stars of Clark's first "Rockin' Eve" included Al Green, Helen Reddy and Three Dog Night.
New Year's Eve also marks the annual appearance of Clark, once a ubiquitous presence on television. A stroke makes it difficult for Clark to communicate, but he doesn't want to miss this show, Klein said.
"Dick is still Dick Clark," he said. "His communication is a little bit more difficult, but he's still involved in contemporary music. He listens to a lot, he knows a lot, he's still involved in the production. This is very important to him. This is one of his children."
Among the other big broadcasters, NBC and Fox will both be in Times Square on New Year's Eve, too. CBS hands its late-night schedule to its local affiliates.
Highlights of other New Year's Eve offerings:
— Carson Daly is host of a two-hour NBC special, sandwiching local news. The show is heavy on NBC personalities, with a comedy performance from Jimmy Fallon, a review of the year in music from NBC News anchor Brian Williams and performances by Fallon's "Late Night" band, the Roots, and Cee Lo Green and Blake Shelton of "The Voice."
—Comic Rodney Carrington and "Pawn Stars" Rick Harrison and Austin "Chumlee" Russell host "American Country New Year's Eve Live" on Fox. Country stars Toby Keith and Joe Nichols are among the performers in a 90-minute special that switches between New York and Las Vegas.
—MTV's Times Square studio is the site of that network's New Year's Eve party, with Demi Lovato and "Teen Wolf" actor Tyler Posey as hosts. Lovato, Selena Gomez, J Cole and Mac Miller are among the performers.
—After 12 hours of counting down the year's top music videos, BET presents its "106 & Party" special at 11 p.m.
—Two news networks are also marking the occasion with specials. Fox News Channel's Bill Hemmer and Megyn Kelly are live in Times Square, and the network will have performances from country artists Big & Rich and Trace Adkins. On CNN, Anderson Cooper and comic Kathy Griffin have developed their own strange kind of chemistry, and will be back. Promises the outspoken Griffin: "By the time I'm done with him, Anderson's hair is going to be even more gray."