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Left Coast Bias: TV's Turnaround in '09...A Look Back

I don't know if the turnaround in the television business over the last year started on that historic Tuesday in Washington, D.C., but it sure felt like it.

Politics aside, there was a feeling of hope a year ago that the massive turnout by the public—in person, on television and online—may just have signaled the seedlings of a national rally, and whether coincidence or not, things started to get better.

In the year since Aretha Franklin redefined the hat, you can tick off many of the things that have happened to help build the media business back up to where it is today. Perhaps foremost was big media waking up to this fact: When you're mired in a slump, with the wind blowing in and a fireballer bearing down at you and two strikes already on the books, that is when you swing away.

The Wall Street-pleasing layoffs finally stopped, and the business remembered that you have to take some big, expensive shots to create good content—the only thing that separates a multi-billion-dollar company from any schmuck with a flip camera.

But obviously the turning point was when media companies shockingly teamed up and stuck the genie back in the bottle and began charging for everything on the Web—from newspaper articles to every current television show being streamed. Once everyone quietly got together and realized that giving away the milk for free is what killed the business, things changed.

Television viewers learned that to see the best content online during the initial window would cost them, especially once the big media companies diverted all that money to anti-piracy measures. Hulu and many other sites are doing just fine today with their pay-per-stream and subscription models.

Consumers also realized that if they wanted real content from real journalists online, they would have to pay for it. That trend helped rebuild the journalism industry to where it is today. A couple of smaller outlets tried to stay on the free model, but they were quickly exposed as being the second-rate products they were.

The collusion cases are all but over now after the nation's newspapers and media companies realized they could pull it off. The government tried on several occasions to bust up the happenings, but apparently not knowing where Michael's or The Grill is, was never able to prove that any of the “secret” meetings between big media chiefs took place.

But there have been plenty of small victories as well. Among the best news was the big ratings jump of American Idol. Fox execs claimed it was due to the often-steamy Idol After Dark segments that aired in late night on FX, but I maintain the numbers leapt once the program's host brought back those magical two words to close out each show: “Seacrest Out.”

And Fox needed it, after the network got hammered in the fall as the dominating Minnesota Twins swept the Tampa Bay Rays in the American League Championship Series and then the Milwaukee Brewers in the World Series, with no game being settled by fewer than four runs.

Gossip Girl really took off when CBS and Warner Bros. cut a deal for the limited six-episode run of originals over the summer on the CBS network. The summer airings had worked for the original Beverly Hills 90210 when it first aired 70 years ago, and this time around plenty of new viewers found Gossip Girl and headed back to The CW last fall as the show moved from New York City to Yale (don't ask me how I know that makes sense).

ESPN gained a lot of fans—inside and outside of the television business—when it dropped Tony Kornheiser from the Monday Night Football booth and let the team of Mike Tirico and Ron Jaworski just call a football game. The move came as viewers finally began to vote with their remotes against all of the silliness in sports telecasts.

Again, I keep politics out of this column, but whatever happened on that Tuesday just over a year ago seemed to jump-start something. Well, at least my imagination.

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