The Biggest TV Moments of 2011: Oprah, Steve Jobs, funny women and Casey Anthony (Oh, Florida!)
I'm essentially on vacation for the next two weeks, working on assorted outside writing projects and trying to soak up a little Xmas spirit.
But I couldn't ride off into the blogosphere sunset without delivering a few of my year-end lists from the newspaper.
More than an easy column -- which they are, I won't deny -- the year-end list gives critics a chance to look back, put some trends into perspective and cover for all the cool stuff we may have missed telling you about.
The truth is, so much happens in media these days, there's rarely a Top 10 list that can hold it all. So, although my story in Sunday's Latitudes will list my top shows for 2011 — wish me luck in narrowing it down to just 10 choices — this list is going to point out a few larger trends and notable incidents.
Let's call it The Most Important TV Moments of 2011.
1 Oprah gets humbled by OWN. The Queen of All Media has a knack for emphasizing success and spinning away failure. But there's no spinning the trials of OWN, the cable channel founded by the most successful daytime talk show host in history, especially as it still struggles to draw a fraction of the viewers watching an average episode of Hillbilly Handfishin'. The Jan. 1 debut of Oprah Winfrey's new interview show at 9 p.m. — this time, she goes to the interview subjects, starting with American Idol judge Steven Tyler — may be her last chance to salvage a serious cable TV setback.
2 In wake of the death of Apple founder Steve Jobs, everybody fumbles the TV/PC connection. It's the final frontier in media: a service, gadget or platform that unites the active users of the Internet with the passive viewers of television. But Google TV was an awful mishmash of technology; Apple TV is mostly a sleek way to play videos from iTunes; iPads cost too much; and YouTube is still mostly a home for quirky video highlights. News that Jobs died in October just after he claimed to have "cracked" the idea uniting the Internet and television can only leave us wondering if the biggest entertainment revolution from Apple is yet to come.
3 Funny women rule TV. It's not just about New Girl star Zooey Deschanel and CBS' 2 Broke Girls. This revolution starts with Kristen Wiig dominating Saturday Night Live, stretches to Christina Applegate (above) and Maya Rudolph ruling NBC's best new comedy Up All Night, hovers over Amy Poehler on Parks and Recreation, and settles down by Bridesmaids co-star Melissa McCarthy on CBS' Mike and Molly. Too bad NBC used this record as an excuse to hand shows to also-rans Whitney Cummings and Chelsea Handler; with luck, the dysfunctional, oversexed characters they play won't last long.
4 CBS proves TV's most profitable comedy can even survive Charlie Sheen. For CBS, it was like pulling off a bandage in slow motion. Sheen's horrifically public disintegration after his partying brought a halt to production of hit Two and a Half Men in February was necessary — if only to show that CBS should never have let itself be held hostage to his addiction for so long in the first place. One successful Ashton Kutcher transplant later, and network TV now knows anybody can be replaced if their behavior gets destructive and dangerous enough.
5 Casey Anthony acquittal makes Florida look like a backwater on national TV . . . again. Much as I understand and respect the jury verdict, the murder acquittal of a mom who waited more than a month to report the disappearance of her 2-year-old, after weeks of televised testimony, made the Sunshine State look almost as bad as that time we screwed up the presidential election. Toss in how the mad scramble for sources led ABC News to help finance Anthony's defense (by paying her for photos and video footage long before the trial started) and pushed other media outlets to pay sources, and you have another Florida-centered calamity which somehow managed to hobble an entire American institution -- the news media.
6 American Idol survives Simon Cowell's departure; The X-Factor survives his involvement. As the dust clears from Cowell's move to leave Idol and start his own show, the only clear winner is Fox executives. Not only did they juice Idol with Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez, keeping the show at the top of the ratings, but they kept Cowell from fleeing to a rival network, debuting an X Factor successful enough to stabilize their fall ratings without threatening Idol. Yet.
7 Lara Logan's 60 Minutes story on her brutal attack in Egypt loosens taboos on speaking up about sexual assault. Awful as it was to hear details of how Logan was brutally sexually assaulted by a crowd of hundreds near Cairo, her willingness to speak on the issue inspired more journalists to tell similar stories. U.S.-based Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy spoke up in November about her sexual assault while in police custody in Egypt, going on a succession of cable TV shows to tell her story.
Even the flood of reports about alleged sexual assaults at Penn State and Syracuse University feels like a flame from a similar spark. In today's environment, silence in the face of brutality is no longer an option.