Rewinding media in 2020: Heaven help us

Year marked by pandemic, social unrest, and economic collapse

On January 1, we celebrated the new year and all the promise it would bring, not to mention the Summer Olympics and a Presidential election. The NBA All-Star game was held in Chicago in February for the first time in 32 years in a well-received affair.

A month later, we were living in a different world.

A virus originating in China called Covid-19 spread across the world and changed the way we worked, rested, and play. The coronavirus pandemic spurned stay-at-home and lockdown orders all across the country with a ripple-effect affecting everything in sight, closing schools, restaurants, and retail stores for weeks. Television production was also suspended, with Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! among the first to do so.

Sports and live concerts were suspended. Music venues were closed. The economy grinded to a halt. Jobs were lost, with some never to return. The pandemic took away our basic joys of living and has left more than 300,000 dead.

Hit just as hard was the media industry – radio, television, newspapers, etc. You name the platform, it was affected with some revenue figures plunging 90 percent from the previous year. And there were tons of layoffs, especially in radio. And just when it couldn’t get any worse…George Floyd was murdered by the knee of a Minneapolis police officer to his neck, triggering unrest in the Twin Cities and around the country for days, Chicago included.

Let’s take a look at how this complicated year unfolded.

Media business transactions were halted during the pandemic, derailing potential deals including a possible takeover of broadcast station owner Tegna. But it didn’t stop others, such as new ownership of Univision and EMF acquiring more radio stations in markets such as Minneapolis. One thing not ebbing during the pandemic were the number of retrans disputes, with Tegna-AT&T and Dish-Nexstar the most recent, knocking WGN-TV and WGN America off for three weeks.

With President Trump leaving the White House, FCC chair Ajit Pai announced his exit next month, but not before giving a pass to a Puerto Rican broadcaster for airing racist content and essentially giving Sinclair a slap on the wrist for their role in the botched Tribune deal.

As with the rest of media, Chicago radio had a difficult 2020, with chains announcing layoffs including Hubbard, Entercom, and iHeartMedia, who were laying off personnel even before the pandemic hit. Felicia Middlebrooks departed top-rated WBBM-AM for other projects, and so did Melissa McGurren from WTMX’s morning show. Also departing was Mancow Muller from WLS-AM, who was obviously tired of doing a morning radio show, although you know he’ll return to public life to annoy us in some capacity. But the biggest shocker of all took place in December when Cubs TV play-by-play voice Len Kasper moved to the Chicago White Sox in the same capacity for radio, replacing the late Ed Farmer.

The lone format change this year was a big one, with iHeartMedia ending the low-rated Big 95.5 country format after five years with Rock 95.5, whose reception hasn’t been met with a lot of enthusiasm.

Chicago sees something it hasn’t in 43 years – a burning cop car in an uprising.

Local television was also hit hard by the pandemic, forcing many journalists to work and appear remotely, mostly from their homes. There were layoffs, notably at CBS 2 with the decision to let veteran Pam Zekman go after 37 years. But the CBS-owned station received  widespread praise for their investigation of Chicago Police raids into wrong homes as footage of Anjanette Young’s home in such an instance was shown around the world. But at the end of the day, ABC 7 still dominates news ratings in Chicago as it always has, excluding mornings when WGN is on top.

But perhaps the biggest challenge for Chicago news media – and other local and national outlets this year – pandemic aside – was the coverage of protests after George Floyd’s murder late last spring. The killing spurned rioting in Minneapolis and St. Paul and spread across the country, Chicago included. Chicago’s news media was late covering protests and looting downtown, ignoring the mayhem until late in the day May 30 when Mayor Lightfoot announced a curfew. Looting then spread into city neighborhoods for the next two days, causing a significant amount of damage with the South and West sides and even some south suburbs affected.

Another round of looting took place in the early morning hours of August 11, with downtown, River North, and Near North Side areas hit. Some of the mayhem was caught on live TV with shots being fired during a live ABC 7 news broadcast, creating a very surreal scene. Not surprisingly, Chicago news media’s coverage of both events drew heavy criticism from African-Americans as the death of Floyd once again fueled debate on diversity in the media business, from Hollywood to newsrooms around the country. But it’s obvious we still have a long way to go.

Shifting to the national television scene, it was a coming out party for streaming in 2020 (not everyone had a bad year) as thanks to the pandemic and stay-at-home orders, viewers discovered new programming and left linear television in the dust thanks to the successful launches of HBO Max and Peacock and the continued success of Disney Plus. The shift of blockbuster Wonder Woman 1984 from theaters to streaming set a precedent – so much so that Warner Bros. decided to shift its entire film slate to streaming in 2021, making some in Hollywood angry. But not all streaming ventures were successful, evidenced by the failure of Quibi just a few months after launch.

Schitt’s Creek broke the bank at the Emmys with a record-breaking nine awards, while Drew Barrymore became the latest daytime darling. With the pandemic affecting scripted programming, the broadcast networks turned increasingly toward game shows with the return of Millionaire to prime-time but also saw the return of junk like Supermarket Sweep and Weakest Link, questioning whether the networks have waived the white flag to streamers regarding quality programming. Meanwhile, Judge Judy Sheindlin took her gavel to Amazon-owned iMDB, dealing another blow to syndication – reminiscent of when Oprah Winfrey decided to end her highly-rated talk show to focus more on her OWN cable network.

The biggest cancellations of 2020 came in June as fallout from the George Floyd saga ended Cops and Live PD runs , including both shows’ syndicated repeats.

Jerry Taft is among the Chicago media personalities we lost in 2020.

While the cable news networks set ratings records, a new genre emerged: non-partisan journalism with CNBC’s The News With Shepard Smith and WGN America’s NewsNation, produced at WGN’s Bradley Place studios leading the way as reviews and ratings are mixed so far.

Calling it a career in 2020 was Carol Marin, who exited her respective roles at NBC5 and WTTW’s Chicago Tonight after a remarkable 48-year run in journalism. Another notable name retiring was WGN Radio’s longtime agriculture journalist Orion Samuelson after an amazing 60- year career at the station. In addition to the aforementioned Ed Farmer, we said goodbye to Alex Trebek, Kobe Bryant, Clark Weber, Joel Daly, Jerry Taft, Hugh Downs, Dick Johnson, Fred Silverman, Regis Philbin, Charley Pride, Janet DuBois, WGN sports icon Jack Rosenberg, Dawn Wells (who died Wednesday), and too many more to list here.

In the sports department, the Cubs’ finally rolled out their new regional sports network Marquee on February 22, but botched the debut as it didn’t show up on some systems the day of launch. But they did land a deal with Comcast without missing a single game as the MLB season was delayed and shortened to sixty games. Meanwhile, the Bulls and Blackhawks had their seasons abruptly end in March due to coronavirus, though the latter did make a special 24-team playoff bubble and advanced to the second round, where they were eliminated by the Las Vegas Golden Knights.

The Bears had an up-and-down season with a six-game losing streak and drawing the ire of viewers because four of their games aired in prime-time but have since righted the ship. The White Sox and Cubs had an unremarkable playoff run with both teams exiting after the first round with the latter team obviously moving on from the core that brought them their 2016 title.

WGN-TV returned to the sports business with the launch of a nightly sports show and sharing the rights with ESPN Plus for Chicago Fire games. And the XFL returned only to exit again, this time due to the pandemic though gameplay and presentation were greatly improved from last time.

Best/Worst Shows

No doubt HBO Max’s The Flight Attendant and Disney’s The Manlordian had people talking, with the latter becoming an Emmy-winner as the drama basically schooled the current Star Trek reboots on how to produce a quality show. Also receiving votes for 2020’s best is Netflix’s The Queens Gambit and HBO’s The Undoing as my vote goes to ESPN/Netflix’s The Last Dance, which went deep into the Bulls’ six-title run in a way we’ve never seen.

Not much to say here for the worst; let’s just take a pass given the entire year has been a bad TV show to begin with.

In the next few days, look for what to expect in 2021 and an update on 2020’s predictions – and I know you’re looking forward to that! Happy New Year from T Dog Media!

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