Jonathan Storm: TV's brightest for 2008
The programs may not have shined, but the events, and coverage of them, surely did.
It was a terrible year for television shows, with barely a rustle from new comedies and dramas, and a persistent descent into the swamps by "reality" programming.
The big boy, American Idol, continued to lose ratings steam in 2008, while the winning contestant on Hurl had to keep control of his cookies as those around him vomited helplessly, after consuming lots of glop and taking a spin on a stomach-churning ride. It was a big success on G4, a little cable network owned by Comcast (who else?) and aimed at college boys (who else?).
But when it came to real reality, television proved its worth again and again, giving us ringside seats to events both momentous and merely inspiring.
TV's Top 10 in 2008:
1. Taking it to the streets. TV has lost much of its luster as a gathering spot, as cable and computers fragment the audience, but, especially for us Philadelphians, the tube provided some moving shared experiences this year. Helicopters hovered overhead, giving stay-at-homes the chance to celebrate with hooligans and the more benignly energetic, in four separate fall outbreaks of delirium.
First the folks poured onto the pavement at Frankford and Cottman Oct. 15 after the Phillies beat the Dodgers and won the pennant. Then, they were all over the city after the World Series Game 5 clincher Oct. 29. (TV and the weather played poorly together, running Game 3 until 1:37 a.m. Oct. 26, and forcing a 46-hour rain delay in the final game, making the three-inning climax a rare prime-time classic.) Two days later: Parade!
Four more days passed, and people hit the bricks nationwide, in a more significant once-in-a-lifetime post-election frenzy, celebrating Barack Obama's victory.
2. Writers strike. The top TV story of 2007 lingered poisonously into 2008, cutting new series short and giving unmerited longevity to older ones.
CBS worked quickly to get shows back in production, when work resumed in February, and it became the only network to find ratings success in the fall (see No. 9). ABC dillydallied, and let two very different freshman hits of 2007 wither in 2008: the lurid Dirty Sexy Money and Pushing Daisies, one of the decade's cleverest and most endearing series.
Now the actors are contemplating a return engagement, with a strike vote scheduled next month.
3. Political advertising. Despite their tired formats, presidential debates - and one featuring one of the most intriguing vice-presidential candidates ever (see No. 5) - drew record audiences.
More important for television, the candidates also spent record dollars, about $800 million, putting them right up there with McDonald's and Wal-Mart, and staving off economic distress for stations across the country.
Partly reflecting the sorry state of TV programming, but also showing the value of getting your message on three big networks at once, Obama's Oct. 29 half-hour infomercial drew more viewers than any entertainment show all year.
4. Olympics. Michael Phelps played a big role, but NBC also got the Olympics right, delivering more sports to more viewers over more platforms than ever before. It's no longer just about 24 million network TV viewers for the opening night of competition, with gymnastics and swimming and such, but about nearly five million online (in one day) watching video streams of events such as badminton and slalom canoe.
And if you're worrying about the place of the United States in the world, you should be. Nearly 400 million Chinese watched the opening ceremonies on TV.
5. Tina Fey. She's everywhere. Her imitations of Sarah Palin were brutal, but funny and fair. Her 30 Rock, which she writes and produces, is an Emmy favorite and gaining ratings. She also stars, and won the Emmy as best comedy actress.
"I want to thank my parents for somehow raising me to have confidence that is disproportionate with my looks and abilities," said the biggest TV star to come out of these parts since Will Smith.
6. Dead and undead. Vampires pass away more frequently than you think. While forlorn fans were still lamenting the demise of CBS's Moonlight, HBO was working feverishly to resurrect the genre.
Anna Paquin and Stephen Moyer, and the fascinating actors who surround them, help make True Blood one of the premium network's best series in a werewolf's age. And the show is helping to revive HBO's fortunes, which have been sagging in the shadow of Showtime's more-than-10-percent growth the last two years.
After a slow start, True Blood viewership has grown consistently, topping six million a week and putting these vampire chronicles on the way to becoming HBO's third-most-popular show ever, after The Sopranos and Sex and the City.
7. Throwing in the towel at 10. It's only an announcement so far, but NBC's plan for a five-nights-a-week, prime-time Jay Leno show is still enough of a shocker to make this list.
The move lands squarely on the business side of the show business equation. It's possible, with fewer hours to program traditionally, NBC could come up with better shows, too. Don't bet on it, though. Since ER premiered 14 years ago, the network has had exactly one wide-audience dramatic hit, The West Wing, and it couldn't keep it going.
8. John King's "Magic Wall." All the networks copied that Perceptive Pixel Multi-Touch Collaboration Wall, an amazing piece of video technology that makes slippery statistics visually concrete. A version of CNN's gizmo even made it onto Saturday Night Live.
Politics and the presidential election made it an exciting year in TV news, but the energy was tempered by the untimely death of Tim Russert, one of the greatest presences in the game.
9. "The Mentalist." Gorgeous Simon Baker, from the wilds of Tasmania, never really clicked with The Guardian, earlier this decade at 9 p.m. Tuesdays on CBS. But his new show in that slot is solidly in this season's Top 10 ratings, and it was the No. 1 show for a week earlier this month, the first time a freshman show has done that since Desperate Housewives in 2005.
CBS has also unlocked the only successful comedy cupboard on TV these days, as How I Met Your Mother and The Big Bang Theory, both actually funny, continue to hit new ratings highs on Mondays, and another good sitcom, The New Adventures of Old Christine, is helping the network establish a beachhead of laughs on Wednesdays, too.
10. The fall of Larry. Last year, Alycia Lane, career in apparent self-destruct mode, took up this final top spot. This year, we learned she got a big push from her co-anchor, Larry Mendte, now under house arrest with a three-year probation term for hacking into her e-mail.
Mendte's self-destruction echoes the Greek tragedies. Paranoia was his demise, perhaps the effect of so many years of embellishing reports of routine crimes and minor calamities to keep viewers tuning in.