Media Creature's Top Ten Media Stories of 2010

Last Updated Dec 20, 2010 1:22 PM EST

Certainly, revolution in the media business isn't new â€" at this point, it's more or less understood. Still, 2010 stood out: there was huge news across the spectrum, from network TV (whatever happened to that Conan O'Brien guy, anyway?), to devices (who, except for Steve Jobs, knew the world was crying out for something that wasn't a smart phone, but wasn't a laptop, either) to what might be called the Big Brother-i-zation of media (online privacy).

In short, just like the fragmented media universe today, there was a huge media story for everyone. Here, then, the top ten media stories of the year, presented in alphabetical order â€" since ranking them was too damn hard:

1. Aol and Yahoo, or Are Portals Done? 2010 was a lousy year to be a portal, as both Aol, under new CEO Tim Armstrong, and Yahoo!, under increasingly ineffective CEO Carol Bartz, both underperformed in the otherwise robust online marketplace. The main culprit? Facebook, where people are spending more and more of their time. As the two portals head into 2011, however, they should remember that two wrongs can't make a right: toward the end of the year Aol and Yahoo were said to be toying with a really lousy idea: merging.

2. Apple's iPad: The Device We Didn't Know We Needed. Apple's iPad launched in April, after months of hype that, among other things, predicted it would save the magazine business because of its ability to present digital content in a much richer way than the boring, old Web -- and have consumers pay for it. By year's end, it hadn't yet saved the media industry. It had, however, become a sensation, selling almost 4.2 million units in the third quarter alone (Apple's fiscal Q4).

3. Cable Operators and TV Networks Just Can't Get Along. This year, it seemed like whenever a big TV event was on the horizon, there was sure to be a feud between a major TV network and a cable provider over retransmission fees. These disputes inevitably led to the blackout of the signal -- and the big event. Not surprisingly, 2010 had the dubious distinction of being the year in which the world record for such standoffs was set -- the skirmish between Cablevision and News Corp. -- which resulted in Cablevision subscribers missing two World Series games, lasted for more than two weeks. By year's end, the Federal Communications Commission was exploring ways to end these disputes, but we haven't seen the last of these blackouts -- the FCC's powers are limited, and Congress, as it is in regards to so many things, doesn't want to touch it.

4. Facebook Closes in on 600 Million Users. Of course, to merely focus on Facebook's membership growth in 2010 is partly to miss the point; then again, its ubiquity is the straw that stirs its drink. Facebook, was everywhere, literally and figuratively, as the service introduced a popular plug-in that let people "Like" content all over the Web, had its biggest privacy controversy of all, more than doubled revenue to $2 billion, saw its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, named TIME's Person of the Year, and was the subject (with the true focus on Zuckerberg), of a sure-to-be Oscar-nominated movie.

5. Fox News Rides "Fair and Balanced" to Ratings Dominance. For better or worse, News' cable "news" channel kept demonstrating its outsized influence, be it Glenn Beck's "Rally to Restore Honor," its central roles in the Ground Zero mosque and healthcare debates , or its elevation of Sarah Palin to commentator. But the ultimate proof of its dominance was in the ratings; while MSNBC sharpened its left-wing leanings, and CNN foundered, Fox flourished. For instance, on an average night like Dec. 6th, Fox News had 2.3 million viewers in primetime, while MSNBC had 810,000 and CNN had only 598,000. Who cares if a just-released study from the University of Maryland says that Fox News viewers are the most misinformed? Rupert Murdoch, Roger Ailes & Co., are laughing all the way to the bank.

6. Geolocation, Geolocation, Geolocation. Remember when check-ins used to be for baggage? One of the biggest trends in social networking -- besides Facebook's and Twitter's world domination of the category -- was geolocation, as companies like Foursquare began to make telling your friends where you were fashionable -- and, increasingly, productive. Savvy advertisers like Starbucks and McDonald's -- and many smaller establishments -- began to offer perks to customers who had adopted the "check-in" habit. Since it first got on the radar screen with the social media intelligentsia at 2009's SXSW Interactive, it has grown to more than four million members -- enough of a growth curve to get the aforementioned Facebook and Twitter to roll out their own location-based services during 2010.

7. NBC's Disastrous Late Night Gamble. Perhaps NBC's late-night debacle is best expressed by the bio that accompanies Conan O'Brien's Twitter account: "I had a show. Then I had a different show. Now I have a Twitter account." It was almost a year ago that NBC, buffeted by low ratings for both its 10 p.m. "Jay Leno Show" and "The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien," decided to fix things. In what is a very broad definition of the word "fix," it cancelled "The Jay Leno Show," planning to wedge Leno into a half-hour after the 11:00 p.m. news, and move "The Tonight Show" to what was really the next day, starting it after midnight. Depending on your sense of humor, hilarity ensued, as O'Brien balked, legions of Conan O'Brien fans took to the Internets to complain, and Leno took it on his ample chin from every other late night host for being an accomplice to O'Brien's departure -- and taking "The Tonight Show" back. The drama obscured cold business reality -- NBC had gambled that, with production costs so high for primetime dramas, it would have a better return on investment at 10 p.m. by slotting in the relatively cheap "Leno" show five nights a week. Instead, the low ratings for "Leno" had a ripple effect that caused low ratings for affiliates' news programs, and probably hurt O'Brien's ratings as well. Much as the network business model needs some retooling, this took that need too far.

8. Netflix Jumps in the Stream. For those who thought Netflix was a company that mailed DVDs in red envelopes, 2010 was an eye-opener. This was the first year that Netflix streamed more content than it mailed. By one estimate, during some prime hours, the company accounted for 20 percent of all downstream Internet traffic; meanwhile, its subscriber base grew from about 11 million to 17 million in a year's time. Some of the content universe pooh-poohed Netflix's rise, ascribing part of its success to it having signed cheap deals to stream content before it became a streaming play-ah. But don't be fooled, the bravado probably covers up fear.

9. Online Privacy Goes to Washington. No doubt aided and abetted by various Facebook privacy imbroglios, Washington began to get more and more serious about doing something about online privacy -- or lack thereof. Unfortunately, for the online industry, the fact that the House changed hands because of the mid-term elections didn't seem to slow down the feeling in D.C. that something must be done. What that something will be is a matter of debate -- while bills concerning online privacy have been floating around both the House and Senate, the FCC suggested a "Do Not Track" service similar to "Do Not Call" and the Obama Adminstration suggested the creation of a "Privacy Bill of Rights" which would include the establishment of a privacy policy unit within the Commerce Department.

10. Print Stars Defect to Online. Though the shift of readers from print to online is an old story, the migration took on a different form this year, when more than a handful of prominent journalists who made their reputations in print moved to ventures that were either mostly, or wholly, online. The two most recent moves are New York Times' Sunday Business editor Timothy L. O'Brien hiring by The Huffington Post as national editor and David Shipley, who helmed the Times' Op-Ed page, to a new opinion-writing venture at Bloomberg LP called Bloomberg View. During the course of the year, however, other big names such as The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz (to the Daily Beast) and Newsweek's Howard Fineman (to the HuffPo) also made the switch.

Any stories you think should have been here that weren't? Comment below.

  • Catharine Taylor

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