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2010 a year when viewers wrested remote from giants of corporate media

There is a war under way behind the brittle glass of your TV screen. And 2010 may go down in history as the year the tide turned for good.

On one side stand those who always have provided your TV entertainment, serving up historically high-quality products. From HBO's ambitious mob-centered period piece Boardwalk Empire to ABC's rollicking family comedy Modern Family, the choicest bits of today's television are as good as we've ever seen.

And on the other side, stand you. Backed by 500 million of your closest Twitter peeps and Facebooking pals, you have wrenched increasing control of big media from the professionals who make it, redefining everything from celebrity and art to journalism and politics in the process.

This may be the biggest media story of the year, the moment that the people who consume television became at least as important to the future of the medium as those who build it.

In that spirit, here's my list of the most important turning points for TV and media in 2010. Beyond a roster of the best stuff on TV — which you've already seen everywhere — this tally recounts the moments when media moved the world, often nudged along by your power.

10. The rise of the millionaire reality TV star

Remember when networks used to brag that reality TV shows were great for business because the stars worked cheap? A decade later, knuckleheads known mostly for sex tapes and tight abs can rack up multimillion-dollar paydays (yes, the Situation's reputed $5 million salary is more than 12 times what President Barack Obama earns). Forget about 15 minutes of fame; these days, everybody has an hourlong episode of Intervention or Biggest Loser in them.

9. High-end TV soars

TV's flood of ambitious, morally ambiguous series brought new hope to actors left out of a film industry focused on the latest robot movie and rom-com. No wonder character actor supreme Steve Buscemi, whose face resembles a pinched nerve, offers the work of his career in HBO's lush period mob drama Boardwalk Empire. Ditto with Laura Linney in Showtime's The Big C, Jon Hamm in AMC's Mad Men, Glenn Close in FX's Damages and more. Anybody who still says there's nothing good on TV just isn't paying attention, or doesn't have cable.

8. War of the TV-bred political rallies

Once upon a time, politicians created the biggest political rallies. But Fox News Channel conservative firebrand Glenn Beck filled the National Mall in Washington with a rally originally intended as an attack on progressives, later morphed into a religion-filled platform for platitudes on restoring America's honor. Comedy Central host Jon Stewart responded with a joke-filled Washington event that drew twice as many people, turned by fans into a gentle plea for liberal inclusiveness. Judging by the GOP's midterm election victories, not many were listening.

7. Fall of Tiger and Favre sparks rise of sports gossip

We now know the price for a star quarterback's head; snarky sports blog Deadspin admitted paying $12,000 for voice mails reportedly from married QB Brett Favre to a pretty sideline TV personality in 2008, along with texted photos of a naked man's naughty bits. Paired with the voracious coverage of superstar golfer Tiger Woods' stunning amounts of infidelity, TMZ and Deadspin pioneered a new level of dirt-digging for blog hits and bragging rights. Looks like John Madden got out of the sports media game just in time.

6. NPR makes Juan Williams a conservative martyr

NPR probably expected praise for severing ties with news analyst Juan Williams after he told Fox News Channel about fearing people in "Muslim garb" on airplanes. But Williams was ready, scoring a new multimillion-dollar deal with Fox News that turned the worst-handled firing of the year into an attack on the radio news outlet's impartiality and funding. NPR forgot the first rule of today's news media: Everything is political.

5. NBC, Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien eviscerate The Tonight Show's legacy

Fans may grouse that Jay Leno pushed Conan O'Brien out of a job he originally agreed to leave. But Leno was scoring top ratings, allowing him to nab a new contract guaranteeing more financial pain for NBC if they fired him than O'Brien. In the process, O'Brien's career was hobbled and NBC removed any remaining prestige left for The Tonight Show brand.

4. The slow death of American Idol

How did Fox respond to losing the biggest star from TV's biggest show when judge Simon Cowell quit? By losing Idol's second-biggest star (a disillusioned Ellen DeGeneres), drafting a 62-year-old rocker to judge a program seriously short on pop stars and lowering the applicants' age limit in a bald-faced bid to snare the next Justin Bieber. With Idol ripoffs on the way from NBC, CBS and Cowell, via his new Fox show The X Factor, TV's biggest hit looks like a wounded caribou waiting for Sarah Palin.

3. The online Information War explodes

First, conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart attacked the NAACP with a false charge of antiwhite racism based on a heavily edited video. Then WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange exposed secret documents outlining everything from undercovered problems in the Afghanistan war to State Department spying on diplomats, all using a decentralized website no government can shut down. We're way past televising the revolution; now it's all happening online.

2. 'I'm not a witch' redefines the political debate

Using a pricey campaign ad to disavow past dabbling in witchcraft, Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell of Delaware simultaneously summed up the depths of fringy crackpots unearthed by desperate midterm voters and the hazards of running for office after a career as a button-pushing conservative pundit. Those who rise by the sound bite sometimes are sunk by it.

1. Rise of the individual as a media brand

Here's what Facebook did for the world: It turned every person with an Internet connection into a media outlet. Small wonder TV is bursting with everyday people who think their lives are ready for prime time; Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have made it a reality, cultivating a generation that can leverage the world's attention with a single captivating video, blog post or tweet. Big media's challenge? Just keeping up.

2010 a year when viewers wrested remote from giants of corporate media 12/23/10 [Last modified: Thursday, December 23, 2010 4:57pm]
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