Rewinding media in 2021: You just can’t explain it

 

A photo from 2019 featuring former ABC 7 personalities Mark Giangreco and Janet Davies as hosts of “Countdown Chicago”. Despite their departures, the ABC-owned station still remains tops in the ratings. (Chicago Business Journal)

Popularity isn’t exactly overrated as 2021 ends a wild year in media

Like mystery of the sphinx or crop circles, you just can’t explain the continued popularity of certain things despite questionable changes.

After the firing of Mark Giangreco and seemingly public disdain for one of her former co-anchors, ABC 7 remains on top of local Chicago news ratings, at least at 10 p.m. Despite the studio bungling the search for a permanent host, Jeopardy remains on the top of its game. Even though the Chicago Bears are even more of a disaster on the field now than they ever were, the team is still drawing high ratings locally and nationally, outdrawing the Oscars and the Grammys. And despite going out of production after 25 years and the shows namesake jumping ship to Amazon, reruns of Judge Judy is drawing more viewers than all but three shows in syndication.

The word for 2021 is “despite”.

Or it should be durability, as linear TV putters along despite losing coolness points to streaming, while WBBM-AM NewsRadio 780 continues to be Chicago’s most listened radio station in a medium even worse off. Maybe all this talk about “dying off” is just talk, as it always has been. So, let’s take a look at our annual review of the year that was in media.

The Chicago Tribune’s sale to a hedge fund was one of many lowlights in Chicago media this year.

Chicago media

The firing of Mark Giangreco making fun of co-anchor Cheryl Burton on- air was certainly one of the biggest local media stories of the year. The decision sparked backlash against Burton from (**ahem** certain Caucasian) viewers, but ABC 7 managed to continue dominating the late-night local news and the market overall in November.

Giangreco wasn’t the only Chicago media personality to be relieved from his duties. Eric Ferguson of WTMX/ The Mix was forced out after it was revealed he sexually harassed several staffers, including Melissa McGurren and Cynthia DeNicolo, who are filing separate suits against him. The saga also uncovered the great length Hubbard management went in covering up the scandal.

Another person forced out was Chicago Tonight executive producer Hugo Balta, who resigned after he made several questionable social media posts.

Calling it a career were WLS-FM’s Greg Brown, NBC 5 meteorologist Andy Avalos, and WBBM-AM anchor Pat Cassidy, who’s retiring after 51 years in radio.

The decline of linear TV was felt in Chicago as Windy City Live, Chicago’s Best, and Check Please all exited the airwaves, but WGN-TV’s Daytime Chicago turned out to be a hit, proving the local talk show can survive. Also a hit was Toon In With Me, MeTV’s offbeat classic cartoon morning show.

Personnel changes saw Kevin Cross adding GM duties to NBC 5 in addition to sister stations NBC Sports Chicago and Telemundo Chicago, becoming the first African-American in the role of major broadcast TV stations in Chicago since 2000. CBS 2 also made waves after hiring former WGN-TV news director Jennifer Lyons away from the faltering NewsNation replacing Derek Dalton, who was swept out with others after an internal investigation into misconduct at the CBS-owned stations.

Nexstar’s NewsNation is a joke. A ratings disaster. A joke of a ratings disaster.

Journalism

The journalism beat in Chicago was a trying one with crime being the dominant issue with murders, shootings, smash-and-grabs, and carjackings leading off most local newscasts and became a focus on conservative media with – you guessed it – Chicago being front and center. It’s like we’re back in the tabloid-fueled TV news era of the 1990s, proving journalism hasn’t exactly evolved since then.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot made a controversial move last summer by inviting only Black journalists to interview her to mark two years in office. Her decision, of course was panned – even by those she was trying to help. 

Eric Zorn of the Chicago Tribune had to answer critics after he wrote a controversial column about thirteen-year-old Adam Toledo, who was gunned down by Chicago Police. But the paper he wrote for was taken over by the heartless Alden Global Capital hedge fund as a wave of journalists and columnists exited the paper (including Zorn), making Chicago worse off for it. Well, at least those calling for Zorn’s firing got what they want. 

Journalism had struggles on the national stage, too. In a potent event in American history, the media mailed it in on January 6 as Trump supporters tried to overthrow the government in an insurrection. Cable news continued to dominate ratings as flash and style – not substance was the rule. And the foibles of Nexstar’s barely-watched NewsNation continued, with Lyons and a host of others exiting Perry Sook’s pet project while changing their lineup to add more opinion-based shows while still claiming to be “news without bias”. And while NewsNation did cover the insurrection live, it deemed airing reruns of In the Heat of The Night more important than carrying the live verdict in the Ahmaud Arbury or Kyle Rittenhouse cases.

Netflix’s new “Chicago Party Aunt” swept our town’s hearts, though not the nation’s.

National TV scene

Streaming came of age in 2021 as linear TV – the cable and broadcast networks – continue to falter. ViacomCBS relaunched CBS All Access as Paramount Plus and Discovery launched their own services but unlike other streamers, has yet to generate a truly buzzworthy show (sorry, the Star Trek stuff doesn’t count). Netflix’s biggest smash hit was Squid Game as our city got its first animated series with Chicago Party Aunt, but wasn’t a hit on the same level.

Even ABC 7 jumped on the streaming bandwagon, producing a documentary series on convicted felon and former Illinois governor Rod Blagoveich for Hulu as both are corporate parents of Disney. 

But linear isn’t down for the count yet, proven by the surprise success of CBS’ Ghosts and Paramount Network’s Yellowstone, not to mention HBO’s Succession and NBC’s Law & Order: Organized Crime. The CW made history for all the wrong reasons by scoring hash marks for some shows but didn’t stop them from expanding to a seventh night on Saturday.

The big syndication news in 2021 is Jeopardy’s The Race to Replace Alex Trebek conducted by executive producer Mike Richards – only to appoint himself as host. Richards stepped down and was later fired as executive producer after sexist things he said in an old podcast were revealed but despite the turmoil, Jeopardy! remained near the top of the weekly syndication ratings.

Another big move was made in November when Judy Sheindlin shifted to IMDB TV with Judy Justice. But encores of her previous show Judge Judy continued to draw huge ratings and ranked only behind Wheel of Fortune, Family Feud, and the aforementioned Jeopardy in syndication and remains the top-rated court show.

While we all knew Ellen DeGeneres was calling it a career in 2022, stations, audiences, and even syndicator Sony were stunned when Dr. Oz quit his daytime show to run for the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania. But Tamron Hall is sticking around, signing a two-year renewal deal with Disney. And despite terrible reviews (and ratings), Jay Leno triumphed in his return to nightly television with an updated version of You Bet Your Life.

NBCSN became a victim of cord-cutting in cable as the network announced its closure. Also closing (at least in name) was WGN America, who became Newsnation while Scripps shuttered three diginet channels. However, the business exploded with five new channels introduced this year alone with Newsy, Defy, TrueReal, Twist, and MeTV Plus. 

The business of media

After a quiet 2020 due to the pandemic, merger and activity ramped up in 2021 as Warner Media was spun-off from AT&T and merged with Discovery Communications in a $43 billion deal. AT&T also spun-off its DirecTV unit to a new company, but retained a 70 percent interest (with hedge fund TPG owning 30 percent.)

WIFR Rockford owner Gray Television finalized their merger with Meredith, gaining a newfound-flagship duopoly in Atlanta in WGCL/WPCH (the former WTBS.) Another major deal was big in the Spanish-language media universe as Univision and Mexico City-based Televisa decided to combine forces.

Locally, RCN expanded its footprint to Chicago’s South Side and Northwest Indiana as parent Astound Broadband acquired the assets of WOW (WideOpenWest). Meanwhile, retrans battles continued unabated as Disney stations were briefly pulled from YouTubeTV and Tegna yanked their stations off of Dish.

While Sinclair did manage to strike a last-minute deal to stay on Dish, the company was hit with a massive ransomware attack in October, forcing numerous news stations to do without graphics, and even pre-empting syndicated programming.

Despite horrible records, A Bears-Lions game on Thanksgiving drew 26 million viewers.

Sports and sports media

Chicago sports brought a mixed bag as usual, with the Bears’ self-destruction the biggest local sports story of the year, Matt Nagy’s incompetence and all. But it wasn’t enough to keep them off national TV as they received four dates – including a Thanksgiving Day game against the Detroit Lions that attracted 26 million viewers, outdrawing the Oscars, Grammys, and the Emmys.

Not to be outdone, details of a sex scandal involving a former Blackhawks video coach tarnished their 2010 Stanley Cup Championship, with a courageous Kyle Beach coming forward to say he was “John Doe”. The controversy didn’t help the current Hawks on the ice, who started 1-9-2 before firing their head coach Jeremy Cotillion. At one point, the United Center had games where you heard “Fire Cotillion” AND “Fire Nagy” chants – yet another embarrassing moment in Chicago sports.

Speaking of which, the Cubs traded away the core of their 2016 Championship team and you saw the results on the field. And the less said about the Fire, the better.

It wasn’t all bad, as the Chicago White Sox under Tony LaRussa made the playoffs for the first time since 2008 with improved ratings and raises hope for the future. The team played in the inaugural Field of Dreams game with the White Sox’s Tim Anderson hitting a walk-off home run to win the game over the Yankees, providing an iconic moment. The Chicago Bulls also proved to be better, fielding a competitive team for the first time in nearly a decade. 

Meanwhile, the WNBA’s Chicago Sky clinched their first championship, bringing women’s sports into the spotlight and the NWSL’s Chicago Red Stars made to their championship game, but lost.

In the sports media department, the NHL returned to ESPN after 17 years away and appeared on TNT for the first time. The NFL continues to be a ratings monster as they easily re-upped their TV deals while the Bulls did likewise with a radio one for The Score. Disney got out of the sports radio business by selling ESPN 1000 and the rest of their ESPN-branded stations while Leila Rahimi’s star continues to rise, joining WSCR-AM in a full-time role with Dan Bernstein and a part-time sports role anchoring at NBC 5.

Chicago television got bombarded with annoying gambling ads and even one from Bally’s, who’s pitching a new casino in Chicago. But the regional sports networks bearing their name under Sinclair ownership are struggling under debt and unable to get carriage on streaming services and Dish, who dropped all RSNs. 

In memoriam

Two of the biggest names in Chicago media back in the day died this year: WGN-TV anchor Allison Payne and WMAQ-TV meteorologist and pilot Jim Tilmon. Also passing was former WLS-TV host Bill Campbell and another WMAQ familiar face, Dick Kay. Outside of Chicago, the list includes Hank Aaron, Ed Asner, rapper DMX, Cloris Leachman, Rush Limbaugh, Larry King, Norm McDonald, and the Monkees’ Michael Nesmith.

On Tuesday, ESPN 1000 Bears reporter Jeff Dickerson succumbed to colon cancer at the age of 44. On the same day, legendary Hall Of Fame coach and broadcaster John Madden also died. He was 85.

Best/Worst shows

T Dog Media retired the “Best” and “Worst” lists years ago, but if I were to pick…

The best in 2021 are, of course streaming shows. The odd pairing of Steve Martin and Selena Gomez made Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building a hoot to watch. Also earning positive nods are HBO’s Succession and the sadly-departing Insecure, two shows who had considerable buzz on Twitter and other social media platforms. 

As alluded to earlier, NewsNation – an entire cable network – wins hands down as the worst anything, but also receiving votes are The Bears (of course), You Bet Your Life, CNN’s History Of The Sitcom, and ABC’s The Goldbergs, who fired Jeff Garlin after on-set abuse allegations. Hopefully, the show follows him out the door.

And that’s a wrap for 2021. In the next few days, look for what to expect in 2022 and an update on 2021’s predictions. Happy New Year from T Dog Media!

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