The Top 10 TV News Stories of 2015
1. Peak TV: In January, FX boss John Landgraf raised eyebrows when he announced primetime had 352 scripted series. By December, that number soared to a record 409 scripted series in primetime. “There’s too damn much. Too much good stuff. Too much great stuff,” said Rolling Stone, which added that the Golden Age of Television has turned into “Peak TV Blues.” Combine that will all the terrific yet numerous unscripted TV shows, and it’s impossible for any normal person to keep up. One TV critic coped by coming up with a Top 35 list with 25 runners-up for the year. “In 2015,” says Willa Paskin, “there were great sitcoms, dramas, musicals, telenovelas, cartoons, melodramas, dramedies, period pieces, procedurals, prequels, reality shows, superhero shows, late-night shows, sketch comedies, romantic comedies, stoner comedies, and comedies about depression.”
2. The Empire Effect: The first season of the Fox hit was stunning in so many ways: A network TV drama revived the primetime soap to critical acclaim with a black cast while attracting huge ratings—including a large white viewership — that climbed every week. “God, it’s great,” tweeted Stephen King. Empire’s surprising success revived interest in primetime soaps and musical shows, and it also resulted in a large number of black actors being cast in TV pilots in the spring.
3. TV Goes Crazy Remaking/Reviving Old Movies and TV Shows: Full House, Gilmore Girls and The X-Files were among the TV revivals announced in 2015. By one count, 42 movie-to-TV adaptations are in the works—as of one month ago. TV went so crazy with revivals that NBC inexplicably began bringing back Coach, which ended 18 years ago on ABC, before opting to cancel the revival after coming to its senses. 2015 was so jam-packed with TV and movie remake announcements that they began crowding into each other’s news cycles. For instance, the October 2nd news that Lethal Weapon would be remade for TV was followed two hours later by the news that MacGyver was also being remade.
4. Late-Night Shuffle: 2015 saw the most tumultuous 12 months in late-night TV history. David Letterman and Jon Stewart exited with a combined 52 years of late-night TV experience. Stewart was replaced on The Daily Show by Trevor Noah, who was barely known at this time last year. Stephen Colbert spent most of 2015 preparing to take over for Letterman, only to launch a Late Show that hewed closely to his Colbert Report on Comedy Central. It took time, but Larry Wilmore’s Nightly Show found its voice by blurring the lines between humor, outrage and sadness. In March, James Corden brought a Jimmy Fallon-esque musical energy to CBS’ Late Late Show. There were so many changes in late-night that, to stand out, Seth Meyers opted to sit down at his desk to deliver his Late Night monologue.
5. Rise of TV Diversity: Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl was canceled in March 1995. It took approximately 20 years—following a slew of terrible sitcoms starring white people—for a TV network to give a second chance to a comedy starring Asian-Americans. By the end of 2015, ABC has not one but two successful Asian-American sitcoms in Fresh Off the Boat and Dr. Ken. But they weren’t the only minority success stories. Jane the Virgin and black-ish were renewed this year and returned to superior second seasons, Viola Davis won an Emmy for How to Get Away with Murder and The Carmichael Show flourished in the doldrums of summer TV. Is this a case of “TV execs suddenly noticing that non-white people exist”? Or is TV diversity here to stay?
6. The Decline of Reality TV: Sure, The Bachelor, Survivor and The Amazing Race are thriving. But they are old. If those reality franchises were people, they would all be teenagers. (The Bachelor turns 14 in March.) American Idol, which also turns 14 next year, is saying goodbye after 15 seasons, most of which it spent No. 1 in primetime. The boom days of reality TV are over — so much so that it’s hurting Viacom’s earnings. “Reality seems tired. It seems derivative,” a former network chief tells Vulture. “There hasn’t been a really loud, innovative reality show in a while.”
7. Caitlyn Jenner: Diane Sawyer’s interview with the then-Bruce Jenner about transitioning to female scored huge ratings, 17 million, for ABC on a Friday night. Jenner also helped boost the ESPYs to record ratings. Although ratings for Jenner’s E! reality show I Am Cait were disappointing, her story was one of the most important ones told this year. “In short,” says Brian Lowry, “ABC took an interview that easily could have been diced into a week’s worth of segments on Good Morning America and turned it into a broader discussion and examination about the current state what it means to be transgender in 2015, juxtaposed against loneliness that surrounded it when Jenner was younger.”
8. The Rise of Streaming TV: 2015 was the year that streaming services like Netflix and Amazon made their biggest impact. Both Netflix and Amazon had a strong showing at the 2015 Emmys with a combined nine wins. But it’s in the recent Golden Globes nominations that streaming really arrived as an awards show contender. Streaming shows made up four of the six nominees in the Best Series, Musical or Comedy category — Hulu’s Casual, Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, and Amazon’s Transparent and Mozart in the Jungle. Four of the 10 best actor and actress nominees for comedy also came from streaming services (Lily Tomlin, Aziz Ansari, Gael Garcia Bernal and Jeffrey Tambor). By dropping entire seasons at once, streaming TV has created its own genre, says James Poniewozik, because those shows “are more than simply TV series as we’ve known them. They’re becoming a distinct genre all their own, whose conventions and aesthetics we’re just starting to figure out.”
9. Is He or Isn’t He Dead?: Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead and The Leftovers all had what looked like dubious deaths this year. And three marks a trend. TV critics debated whether these kinds of deaths might kill off this particular TV twist, or whether major TV deaths have lost their power to stun us. As Tim Goodman put it, “To have all of these characters’ controversial demises happen so close together, however—and the instant debate on their dubiousness—suggests writers might want to think of something (anything) different going forward.”
10. Donald Trump: In 2015, Trump went from hosting Celebrity Apprentice in the spring to dominating politics in the summer and fall. Trump as a serious presidential candidate is a TV phenomenon. Besides appearing on Fox News for 22 hours and 46 minutes from May 1 to December 15, Trump delivered record ratings for cable channels carrying the Republican debates. He also helped boost ratings whenever he visited a late-night show. “Donald Trump is the presidential candidate that reality TV made,” says Seth Grossman. “An electorate trained in voting contestants on and off shows like American Idol wants to keep him around because he makes things interesting. Instead of any plausible policy stance, Mr. Trump has built his campaign around an entertaining TV persona.”