TV year marked by broken trust, shifts in late-night landscape and a new ratings empire
NEW YORK >> It's been a year of shifting sands in late night. A year of broken trust in two vastly different TV personalities. And a year when presidential debates became must-see TV.
Here's a rundown of 10 big television happenings in 2015:
Say 'Good Night'
Late-night TV's transformation began in January, when Larry Wilmore's new "Nightly Show" claimed the Comedy Central slot previously held by Stephen Colbert's "Colbert Report." Then in February, Jon Stewart announced he was leaving Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" and, in July, he did. In March, James Corden took over CBS' "Late Late Show" and Trevor Noah was declared the incoming host of "The Daily Show," debuting in September. In May, David Letterman retired from CBS' "Late Show" and, in September, Colbert arrived as its new host.
Fox's "Empire" premiered in January and quickly became a rip-roaring success. Its audience grew every week through its May season finale — a virtually unprecedented feat — and it launched Taraji P. Henson's fearless, outrageous Cookie as the year's breakout character, complete with a real-life fashion line. Meanwhile, stars from Mariah Carey and Cuba Gooding Jr. to Pitbull and Marisa Tomei were lining up to guest on the show. All in all, a rare case of a broadcast-network drama truly shaking things up.
Streaming was where the TV action was this year as an increasing number of viewers gleefully cut the cable cord (or at least fantasized about it) while plugging into outlets like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu, which all upped their stake in original content. Newcomers kept viewers' heads spinning, including the Spanish-language Univision Now channel and, now in beta, the comedy channel Seeso. Meanwhile, CBS' All Access streaming-video service grabbed viewers' attention by announcing that early in 2017 it would be the exclusive U.S. home for a brand-new "Star Trek" series.
Trusted NBC "Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams, who reported so credibly on wars for NBC News, got caught fudging his own stories as a guest on "Late Show" and elsewhere. His was a precipitous fall from grace (and the top tier of NBC News) as he was benched and replaced by Lester Holt. Though he would continue to be banned from NBC, he was eventually deemed sufficiently trustworthy to play on second-string MSNBC, where he quietly emerged from hiding in September.
A Coke and a smile
May marked the end of "Mad Men," a drama that made its network, AMC, golden while helping certify television as the artistic equal of film. After seven seasons plotting the style, agita and misbehavior of the '60s white-collar class, it concluded in properly shrewd fashion: Don Draper (series star Jon Hamm), who had dropped out of the ad game in despair, was struck with his own brand of consciousness-raising while he meditated at a yoga retreat, then returned home armed with a New Age epiphany for a classic Coke commercial. (Another beloved series, "Downton Abbey," was winding down for its final season in early 2016.)
'19 Kids' down for the count
Trouble hit the long-running TLC reality show "19 Kids and Counting" after the oldest of the Duggar brood, 27-year-old Josh, became the subject of revelations that, as a teenager, he had fondled four of his sisters and a baby sitter. A portrait of wholesome family life, "19 Kids" had been TLC's most-watched series, averaging 3.2 million viewers, until it was pulled from the air in May, then officially canceled in July. In August, Josh publicly apologized for a pornography addiction and cheating on his wife, and, in November, he was sued by an adult-film actress who claimed he assaulted her when consensual sex turned rough. None of that kept TLC from producing three specials featuring two of the sisters victimized by Josh for airing in December.
Gender reassignment was a conspicuous theme in 2015. Amazon's award-winning scripted series "Transparent" entered its second season. In June, "Becoming Us" premiered on ABC Family as an unscripted series focusing on an Illinois teen whose father was becoming a woman. July brought "I Am Jazz," a TLC unscripted series about 14-year-old Jazz Jennings, who was born male but at 2 years old knew she was a girl. And also in July, the docuseries "I Am Cait" arrived on the E! network to chart the former Bruce Jenner's transition to Caitlyn Jenner as part of a highly orchestrated coming-out campaign that included an April interview with ABC's Diane Sawyer and a Vanity Fair cover.
Donald Trump has long been a familiar face on TV, especially since 2004, when he debuted as host of NBC's "The Apprentice." That relationship abruptly ended last June, not long after Trump's incendiary remarks about Mexican immigrants made while announcing his GOP presidential candidacy. In his new role, he scored an even better TV gig. He became a sought-after guest on talk shows, newscasts and as host of "Saturday Night Live," and proved to be a ratings magnet for presidential debates (see below). Trump's typically measured self-assessment: "Nobody gets ratings like me."
Presidential debates were big draws and big business for the networks that presented them in 2015 — at least, when Donald Trump was involved. The first Republican debate was watched by 24 million viewers, the highest-rated broadcast in Fox News Channel's history. The second debate, with nearly 23 million viewers, made similar history for CNN. The third debate, seen by 14 million viewers, broke records for CNBC. And with the fourth debate, Fox Business Network landed its biggest-ever audience, 13.5 million viewers. (The first Democratic presidential debate, deprived of Trump or any other fireworks, delivered a paltry 8.5 million viewers to CBS.)
From TV's eyes in the sky while the horror transpired to plundering the shooters' home, TV news was there in San Bernardino, Calif. It was there in Colorado Springs, Colo. And Charleston, S.C. And, of course, Paris. And so many more. The grim, graphic visuals from these repeated mass shootings began to harden into ritual for viewers and even correspondents covering them. One tragedy after another, it was raw repetition of something out of control, with no end in sight.