From Trump to #MeToo: A Dizzying Year in TV News

Posted December 31, 2017 4:12 p.m. EST

A cable-news-obsessed president turned TV journalists into household names. A nationwide reckoning on sexual harassment ended the careers of some of television’s best-known personalities. And Americans, seeking clarity amid the noise, turned to networks like Fox News and MSNBC in record numbers. Two New York Times media reporters analyze 2017, the year when TV roared back.

Michael M. Grynbaum: President Donald Trump ended his final interview of the year by warning that “newspapers, television, all forms of media will tank if I’m not there because without me, their ratings are going down the tubes.” He’s not wrong! This was supposed to be the Age of Snapchat, but TV was so central to the cultural politics of 2017. The 9 p.m. ratings race between Rachel Maddow and Sean Hannity felt like a proxy war for the country.

John Koblin: Let’s keep in mind that just 2 1/2 years ago, cable news was a dying genre. And the late-night comedy shows were nothing more than a factory for two-minute YouTube clips. And now? We have TV fights and rivalries that feel every bit as relevant as they did in the 1990s. This is the year Stephen Colbert beat Jimmy Fallon thanks to politics, the year Jimmy Kimmel finally became relevant, because of health care. Even Trevor Noah has some juice!

Grynbaum: TV was a gathering ground for the #resist left; heck, MSNBC won weeknights in the all-important 25-to-54 age demographic for the first time in 17 years. But Fox News ended the year at No. 1, even as it resurrected throwbacks like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, a sign that audiences were more turned on by ideology than by personality.

Koblin: Can we just marvel at that for a second? Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham are anchors in Fox News’ lineup. The year started with Bill O’Reilly and Megyn Kelly.

Grynbaum: Tucker, Laura, “Will & Grace” is a hit. It’s 1998 all over again.

Koblin: But let’s also consider this: The #MeToo movement ended the careers of Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose. Since then? “Today” has beaten “Good Morning America” in its first four Lauer-less weeks; “G.M.A.” has been No. 1 for years. Since Rose was fired from “CBS This Morning,” its ratings have been totally fine. Bill O’Reilly is gone, and Fox News is still tops. These guys were stars and, the theory held, brought in big ratings.

Grynbaum: So is TV’s superstar system dead?

Koblin: It’s one of the more fascinating developments of 2017. Star systems have existed in network news for years. Look back to Roone Arledge, who in his time at ABC drove his news division to success with powerhouses like Diane Sawyer, Barbara Walters and Ted Koppel. Big salaries, big ratings, big perks. (NBC flew Lauer back and forth from the Hamptons every week.) For decades, networks were frightened to lose big names. Now we have CBS replacing Scott Pelley on the evening news with a guy named Jeff Glor.

Grynbaum: A man also known as “Who?”

Koblin: And the biggest network transfer of the year — Megyn Kelly to NBC, at a cost of about $17 million in salary — got off to a rough start. It’ll be hard to forget that awkward dancing clip with Hoda Kotb anytime soon. (Or the look on Jane Fonda’s face.) But as the year closes out, she’s found some momentum with going all-in on the #MeToo movement and becoming the go-to venue for interviews with harassment victims.

Grynbaum: Trump was TV’s first great cataclysm of the year; #MeToo was the second. TV news had a raunchy reputation in the industry, but it’s now become perhaps the most prominent example of the national reckoning over sexual harassment. In a way, that’s helped drive home the insidiousness of the issue: Harvey Weinstein was famous, sure, but average viewers had no emotional connection to him. TV stars, however, are like family. Matt Lauer used to be called, only semi-ironically, “America’s dad.” Now Dad is disgraced.

Koblin: But if TV superstars were possibly a wee bit overrated ...

Grynbaum: Just a tad, yes.

Koblin: ... it doesn’t mean stars can’t be born. Thanks to the daily press briefings at the White House, people like April Ryan, Jim Acosta and other workaday journalists became boldfaced names.

Grynbaum: And for every TV touchstone like the James B. Comey hearing, there were a dozen other microevents that burst and faded like a Fourth of July firecracker. Rachel Maddow’s “scoop” on Trump’s tax returns. Sean Spicer’s “Holocaust center” gaffe. The ethics of Megyn Kelly’s interview with Alex Jones. And remember when Van Jones, back in February, declared the State of the Union the day Trump “became president”? It became a meme, and a cautionary tale, about the folly of cable news punditry.

Koblin: This is the day you became a media reporter, Mike.

Grynbaum: John, I feel #blessed. What else happened this year? Roger Ailes died. Rupert Murdoch agreed to sell off his film and television studio — to Disney! CNN and HBO are wrapped up in an AT&T-Time Warner merger that has been challenged by the Justice Department. When has television been so influential, and its power vectors so uncertain?

Koblin: Credit much of this to Netflix. David Letterman, Ryan Murphy, Ava DuVernay, Shonda Rhimes: Those are just a few of the rock-star names that signed on to the streaming service for at least one project. Thanks to Nielsen’s new Netflix ratings service, we now know that “Stranger Things” is a hit. Because of Netflix’s insanely wide reach — over 100 million subscribers — giant players like Apple, Facebook, Google and Disney are gearing up for battle in the streaming space. Amazon, though, stumbled, with its top entertainment executive forced out because of a sexual harassment claim. And all of this while little ol’ Hulu found big success with “The Handmaid’s Tale” and may soon have Disney as a majority owner.

Grynbaum: We also said goodbye to some supporting players. Jeffrey Lord, famous for his pretzel-logic defenses of Trump, was fired by CNN for invoking a Nazi salute on Twitter. (Even White House aides told me they didn’t love Lord.) On the other side of the aisle, Reza Aslan lost his CNN show after a profane tweetstorm about Trump. One of TV’s challenges for 2018 is retaining trust and credibility with audiences. It’s so easy, in TV news especially, to preach to the converted — and inevitable reporting errors are now seized on by the White House as proof positive of bias. Journalists are more wary these days, with good reason.

Koblin: And so are their bosses. This was a year of major, convulsive changes in the TV world, and no one is paying closer attention than the Tivo-er in the Oval Office.

Grynbaum: Hey, we didn’t even touch on “Morning Joe”! There’s always next year.