Top 10 TV Stories of 2016

6:00 AM 12/22/2016

by Michael O'Connell

The good, the bad and "The People v. O.J."

2016 may have been the most objectively sucky year in recent memory, but it was nothing if not eventful. TV was at the center of some of the most dramatic developments, in large part because that is where they played out. From pop culture high points (Beyonce and Westworld) to catastrophic controversies (Billy Bush and Roger Ailes), these are the stories that will be remembered. 

  • 10. Lemonade

    Courtesy of Parkwood Entertainment

    There was something charmingly old school about the very contemporary way Beyonce chose to drop Lemonade. The singer took out a mysterious block of real estate on HBO one Saturday evening, and those who tuned in live bore witness to a surprise feature-length visual album. A relatively unpublicized event on little ol' linear TV hijacked the news cycle for damn near a week, prompting praise (nine Grammy categories and a directing Emmy nom) for the singer — and rampant speculation about the state of her marriage. You cannot pour one out for 2016 and not mention "Becky with the good hair."

  • 9. Vice Embraces the Mainstream

    Screen grab

    Is it a success? That's still not entirely clear. But Vice Media's continued push into traditional television has been anything but subtle. The year saw boss Shane Smith launch an A+E-backed cable network (Viceland) and a daily news program on HBO. For its part, the new network has been a top talent draw. And, at least in the first few months, impressed the industry enough to garner Emmy nominations for Gaycation With Ellen Page and Woman With Gloria Steinem. In the era of cutting cords and surging originals, that's about as much as a startup net can ask for. 

  • 8. The New Late Night

    With the presidential election as a backdrop, late-night's increasingly competitive climate brought a few unexpected winners in 2016: Samantha Bee's not-technically-late-night Full Frontal and the increasingly popular (and apolitical) James Corden on CBS' Late Late Show. Seth Meyers went all-in on news-skewering on Late Night, helping fill the vacancy of Jon Stewart. (The Daily Show, under Trevor Noah, is not yet the go-to source for satire as it was under the previous host.) Speaking of growing pains, Chelsea Handler launched her new Netflix talker — but the medium is thus far making it difficult for her commentary to make it to the water cooler.

  • 7. HBO Heads West

    Courtesy of HBO

    HBO ended a rocky year on a high note. The $100 million Westworld is a ratings success, averaging nearly 12 million viewers per episode across platforms. But that success followed the disappointing start, brief renewal and ultimate cancelation for rock drama Vinyl. Longtime entertainment topper Michael Lombardo stepped down — and one of his last big plays at the network, Bill Simmons' weekly talker, did not pan out. But the good seems to outweigh the bad. The cable network also launched critical favorite Insecure and event series The Night Of. The latter is now poised for an awards show afterlife well into 2017.

  • 6. Netflix's Unstoppable Spend

    Curtis Baker/Netflix

    The fact that Stranger Things became the pop culture phenomenon it did is even more impressive when you consider how much television its streamer is currently pumping through the crowded content feeding tube. Netflix spent a reported $6 billion on original programming in 2016. That number, without precedent for a TV maker, looks likely to only grow in the coming year — as does the occurrence of surprise arrivals. The streamer ended the year with the mysterious drop for sci-fi series The O.A., reminding everyone that Netflix is disruptive if anything.

  • 5. NFL Ratings Fumble

    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    Unless the Chicago Cubs make their way to the Super Bowl by some miraculous inter-league feat, the two most memorable narratives of the 2016 NFL season will be the Rams' lackluster arrival in Los Angeles and the dramatic ratings dips that prompted people across industries to question the durability of America's most-watched sport. Football, it turns out, isn't infallible. Despite an uptick after the election, several primetime franchises will finish the season down more than 15 percent from the previous year. Expect a lot of hand-wringing in the off season about what it all might mean for 2017.

  • 4. O.J. TV

    Courtesy of FX

    The busiest guy in TV this year was O.J. Simpson. Well, sort of. The now-incarcerated football player, most famous for his 1995 murder trial (and acquittal), was the focal point for the calendar's two biggest critical favorites: FX limited series The People v. O.J. Simpson and ESPN's feature/mini doc O.J.: Made in America. Both shows dominated the TV discussion from early  in the year and respectively brought more attention to the entertainment industry's need for inclusion (on and off camera) and the racial prejudices that still fester in the U.S.

  • 3. The Year of Cable News

    Courtesy of Fox News; Jim Bourg-Pool/Getty Images; MSNBC

    For better or worse, cable news dominated in 2016. Fox News Channel topped ESPN for most-watched status, a rare feat, and CNN and MSNBC joined it in setting personal bests for ratings. The trio's relentless coverage of the presidential election, Donald Trump in particular, may well be the subject of divisive debate for decades — but, in terms of the bottom line, there aren't likely many sitting news media execs heading into 2017 with any regrets.

  • 2. NBC's Trump Issues

    Rob Kim/Getty Images

    No media outlet suffered more Trump-related drama than NBC. On top of the lingering issues of Celebrity Apprentice, Trump's former reality home where he remains a profit participant and executive producer, the network found itself at the center of one of the year's biggest scandals. A leaked tape came out in which an old Access Hollywood hot mic caught America's next president talking about grabbing women "by the pussy." It wasn't the death knell so many thought it would be for the Trump campaign, but it did spell doom for Billy Bush. The former Access host, still settling into a gig at Today, was swiftly shown the door for his abysmal bro banter on the Trump tape.

  • 1. The Fall of Roger Ailes

    Getty Images

    If Billy Bush's NBC ax caused a ripple, Roger Ailes' Fox News departure wrought a tsunami. Gretchen Carlson's sexual harassment lawsuit against the media giant, ultimately settled, set off a wave of similar accusations from staffers at the cable news powerhouse -- culminating in network star Megyn Kelly joining the chorus of horrifying complaints. Ailes left FNC after 20 years in the most disastrous behavior expose since the fall of Bill Cosby two years earlier.

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