Top 5 Media Winners of the Year: TheWrap’s Best & Worst 2014

It was a busy media year, with many individuals and groups rising while others fell fast. Here’s who walks into 2015 with momentum

The media landscape has so many categories to cover, so many personalities that need to be kept tabs on, non-stop breaking news to cover, non-stop social media noise, and public relations professionals cheerfully giving you their respective versions of the facts, it’s often a bit blurry which media personalities and networks are coming out on top and which ones are falling behind. 2014 was a year of complete and utter media mayhem.

From TV news network infighting and layoffs, to start-ups built on the backs of big-named journalists being launched and demolished faster than the time it requires to take and post a selfie, to legendary figures retiring, 2014 kept TheWrap and the rest of the media world busy.

There’s plenty of winners and losers that could’ve made our year-end list, but only a select few that stand out as no-doubters. Some picks will surely raise your eyebrows, while others might cause you absolute glee. Feel free to comment or tweet me @JordanChariton.

So, without further ado, here are TheWrap’s Top 5 media winners of 2014. Our losers will come out in the coming days.


WINNERS

Fox News

Fox News

1. Fox News’ Megyn Kelly: Crowning a New Queen of Cable News

News cycles are a way of life on TV news, digital, and print. A huge, breaking news cycle surrounding a big political or entertainment story can last weeks if new news nuggets keep rolling in, while your average cycle typically lasts a day or two. There is one cycle, though, that usually takes a bit longer–going from popular TV news anchor to powerhouse network star. Bill O'Reilly was not an overnight success at Fox News. His original show, “The O’Reilly Report” debuted at 6 p.m. ET–not 8 p.m. ET primetime. His rise to cable news dominance didn’t happen overnight.

And then there’s Megyn Kelly. Technically, Kelly has been with Fox News for a decade, joining as a Washington, D.C. correspondent in 2004. But it’s been in the last calendar year Kelly catapulted from rising star to being lauded as the heir apparent to Barbara Walters in terms of female TV news anchors. Inserted into Fox News’ primetime lineup in October, 2013 at 9pmET–the first major change Fox News chief Roger Ailes has made to the network’s lineup in over a decade–Kelly’s star was born in 2014.

Compared to her launch month, Kelly is up double digits in total viewers and the coveted 25-54 demographic. She grew the 9 p.m. ET hour 25 percent in total viewer and 45 percent in the demo (Sean Hannity was her predecessor at 9 p.m.). November marked the first month Kelly was the top program in all of cable news in the younger demo, beating typical kingpin Bill O'Reilly by delivering 555,000 demo viewers; she also had her highest total viewers month in November with 2.8 million viewers.

But beyond the ratings, in a little over a year in Fox News primetime, Kelly has catapulted from popular TV news anchor to appointment TV. She’s also developed the key knack for creating viral TV news — in some instances–when you least expect it.

“But time and time again, history has proven that you got it wrong in Iraq sir,” Kelly said to a surprised former Vice President Dick Cheney, seemingly not expecting a tough line of questioning on a typically friendly network. Kelly also made waves during an interview with Weather Underground leader Bill Ayers.

Interviews like this have only driven the Kelly craze: cover stories in major magazines; panel conversations with other women power players like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, and being mentioned in the same sentences as Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer; I’ve even heard Oprah.

If she keeps her ratings and recognition moving in an upward trajectory, Kelly might be receiving much more prestigious recognition than being a declared TheWrap winner (although that’s pretty badass). It might lead to her becoming a signature female figure in American media and culture. We’ll just have to keep our eyes on her in 2015 to find out.

Glenn Beck Radio Show

2. “Extreme Makeover: Glenn Beck Edition”

If you believe Beck’s claims–he’s a winner for just being alive today (and TheWrap wishes he and his family well). As TheWrap reported, Beck revealed in 2014 he’s batted years of neurological health issues, struggles that got so bad, he felt phantom pains in his limbs equivalent to bones breaking or stepping on broken glass. Beck said he’d pretty much lost his memory, and went years without any refreshing REM sleep. According to the conservative firebrand, with the help of world class doctors and faith in God, he is now close to full health.

But it is not Beck’s health comeback that lands him on the list. It is his overwhelmingly successful moonwalking move unseen since the likes of the late Michael Jackson. Several years ago, Beck was a bombastic Fox News host pouring gasoline on colleagues on-set, then setting them on fire to depict how President Obama has singlehandedly destroyed America.

“President Obama…why don’t you just set us on fire? For the love of pete,what are you doing? Do you not hear the cries of people, stop!” Beck screamed. And then there was of course, his beloved red phone, left on his Fox set for former White House Communications aide Anita Dunn to call. At one point, he let loose dead fish on-set. The most famous–and criticized–Beck moment featured him calling President Obama a racist on “Fox & Friends.”

Five years later,  Beck’s transformation is complete–to his credit–without many media critics even noticing the magic act he performed.

“I made an awful lot of mistakes, and I wish I could go back and be more uniting in my language,” Beck told Megyn Kelly in January. “I think I played a role, unfortunately, in helping tear the country apart. And it’s not who we are.”

“I didn’t realize how really fragile the people were. I thought we were kind of a little more in it together. And now I look back and I realize if we [his program] could have talked about the uniting principles a little more, instead of just the problems, I think I would look back on it a little more fondly. But that’s only my role.”

Then there was this doozy with CNN’s Brian Stelter. “If you don’t leave now, you’ll lose your soul, because I was just starting to want it,” Beck recounts about leaving Fox News and New York. “If I knew then, and had the same set of facts, I would do exactly the same thing–but now as I get here and I see, we are much more fragile than I thought.”

And on his radio/Internet show on TheBlaze, Beck has been able to evolve his image–from bombastic conservative to soft-spoken, honest broker.

“From the beginning, most people on the left were against going into Iraq. I wasn’t…. Liberals, you were right. We shouldn’t have,” Beck said. Beck’s makeover from polarizing TV lightning rod to soft-spoken, post partisan media figure is a hard act to pull across a career, much less a calendar year.

With his presence on TV news and the speaking circuit in demand more than ever, and his digital TV enterprise TheBlaze continuing to grow, the new, more humble Beck won big in 2014 by simply making most forget the Beck of 2009-2011. And his final victory lap: Forbes Magazine lists him  making a cool $90 million in 2014.

CNN

3. CNN: When Most Trusted Meets Original

You know the most predictable, lazy, and default obsession media execs and reporters have?

Ratings.

Make no mistake, ratings often times pay the bills and provide the bragging rights. For over two decades, CNN was the ratings king among cable news by default–launched in 1980, they had no competition until 1996, when Fox News and MSNBC launched. It kept its rating lead until 2001, when Fox News toppled it.

But also make no mistake-they are not always the most important factor in who is winning.

Here’s how the last few years looked: as cable news became more politically polarized, CNN took a nosedive in the ratings. While Fox News stayed number one by a very large margin, MSNBC moved up to number two, and the original cable news network fell back to third place. In 2013, the network saw a 20-year low in primetime ratings, ranking third. In 2012, even with the presidential election as a boost, the network lost ground during the day and in primetime.

All of this starting making CNN that kid people mocked in high school for not adapting to the new JNCO jeans craze (stay tuned for my memoir), or in the case of the media, at New York City cocktail parties, where execs and reporters gleefully chattered about the network “still stuck in the 20th century of news.”

But 2014 not only turned the ratings around–it turned CNN from the butt of the joke to the thing media folks can’t stop talking about. 2014 was the year CNN returned as a major part of the media conversation–a lot of it negative, but also much of it positive. And if you asked Jeff Zucker if he’d rather his network be mocked by the media community than not spoken about at all (check back for our losers list), he’d opt for the former.

And talked about the network was. In addition to a huge ratings boost, the network became part of the story in March during the mystery of missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. At the time, one network insider told me, “we’re all joking that Zucker’s hiding the plane in his office.” The joke was based on CNN’s breathless, nonstop coverage of the missing Malaysian airliner; coverage that went on for weeks, with breaking news slapped on the screen and reported all day–most of it not actually new developments in where the plane was– with media watchers wondering if a missing passengers’ family member sneezing would be dubbed as breaking news.

Things got so crazy, Don Lemon even asked a guest if the plane could’ve been swallowed by a black hole. But, all of it paid off–CNN surged in the ratings, while critics of its coverage also spiked in their collective journalistic outrage at CNN’s wall-to-wall coverage.

But, in reality, what Jeff Zucker did with the Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 story–drowning CNN’s airtime with the missing airline saga–is no different than what Roger Ailes did with the “scandal”–depending on your politics– of the Benghazi terror attacks on 9/11/12, or what Phil Griffin did with MSNBC’s marathon coverage of the 2013 New Jersey bridge lane closures cleverly dubbed “Bridge-gate.”

Media critics slammed CNN not because they were the network that happened to be dong the breathless, borderline-exploitive coverage of the moment. The criticism came because that kind of coverage is what viewers and critics typically expect from the political playgrounds–Fox and MSNBC—not from the “most trusted name in news,” known for covering stories not based on the ratings, but based on the public interest.

Under Zucker, those days are over.

“I think that if people want to be critical of CNN for over-covering a story, that’s totally fine with us,” he told Mashable. “Clearly, the audience has spoken and said that what CNN did was correct.”

Criticize him, his network, his choice of tie if you’d like–as long as people are talking about CNN again, he–and CNN–are in the winners category.

But one thing Zucker does care about is re-defining CNN’s brand after years the network languished in an identity crisis, left in the shadows of the left-right MSNBC/Fox News paradigm.

And that new definition, doubled down on in 2014, centers around expanding beyond news.

Anthony Bourdain: Part Uknown”; “The Hunt with John Walsh”;  “Somebody’s Gotta Do It with Mike Rowe”; “This Is Life with Lisa Ling”; “Death Row Stories,” and “The Sixties” are all original series airing in 2014 for CNN.

The original series strategy has paid off: CNN’s median age has gone down to 58; relatively young for TV news. From January to date, CNN original series are up double-digits in the 25-54 demo when you combine same day viewing with on demand viewing (Live +3 day and Live +7 day)

Bourdain in particular did well, ranking #1 in the younger demo across cable news in his Sunday time period, outperforming MSNBC and Fox News combined. Newcomer Mike Rowe’s premiere episode marked the highest demo for an original series premiere in CNN history. And Ling’s program also ranked #1 in its Sunday 10p.m.ET timeslot in the demo, beating its cable news competition. Similar success has been produced by Walsh’s program, winning its timeslot in the demo.

And the doubling down on original seemed to please the money men and women: CNN secured 60 new advertisers since 2013 in the hours it airs its original programing.

On the news side, there’s also been gains. At 7pmET, “Erin Burnett: OutFront” is on pace to beat “Hardball with Chris Matthews” in the 25-54 demo. In the morning, “New Day” is up six percent in total viewers year-over-year and is on pace to narrowly beat MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” in the younger demo. And digitally, CNN.com pulled ahead of Yahoo News in page views in October with 1.1 billion.

All of these factors has helped lift the network, which as of now, is on pace to finish 2014 #2, ahead of MSNBC in total day and primetime viewers (TheWrap will have complete ratings recaps for 2014 when the data becomes available).

I’d be remiss to not mention several hundred staffers at CNN that were laid off in 2014 as part of the 10% across-the-board Turner Broadcasting cuts. The topic of people losing their jobs is not to be taken lightly, or boiled down into a clever winners/losers list.

On the CNN end, it should be noted, the decision to part with its staffers did not come from Jeff Zucker, but instead, Turner CEO John Martin. Zucker–and the executives that advise him–had no choice but to make the cuts–similar to what HLN, HBO, TBS, and other Turner network had to do. TheWrap wishes those who lost their jobs well during this holiday season.

LeBron James' Sports Illustrated cover photo

Sports Illustrated

4. LeBron James: The King Has Returned

LeBron James is not a TV anchor, journalist, editor, producer, director, or critic. He’s the best basketball player on planet earth.

And sports–and the actions of its stars–don’t often dominate the mainstream media. No, the news surrounding James is usually covered by ESPN, Fox Sports, and other sports -centric outlets. Sure, when sports crosses culture and law–as in the case of the Ray Rice domestic abuse story or Donald Sterling’s overtly racist statements caught on tape–TV news and digital outlets cover it like a blanket. But those types of stories are more the exception than the norm.

But one action–taken through the media–transformed James from a villain in the eyes of the majority of sports fans’ minds to hero.

I’m Coming Home” by LeBron James was published on Friday, July 11th in Sports Illustrated, and in the flash of 973 words, James went from the villain of the midwest to its savior.

For those out of the sport loop: James, the most hyped basketball player coming out of high school since the great Michael Jordan, played for his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers for the first seven years of his NBA career. Then, in 2010,  as a free agent for the first time, he held a primetime ESPN movie-like special dubbed “The Decision.”

“I’m gonna take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami heat,” he announced. And the fury quickly swept across Cleveland and much of the sports world.

Sports critics and analysts slammed James as taking the easy way out, joining a Miami Heat team stacked with superstars like Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, where as legendary NBA stars like Michael Jordan never opted to join super teams, wanting to instead be the transformative athlete that leads complementary players to championships.

James played for the Heat from 2010-2014, winning two titles in the process. During that time, he became the most polarizing sports figure in America, maybe even the world. You either were part of the “Lebron’s the coward who left Cleveland” camp or the “It’s a free country and he can play wherever he wants” camp.

And then, James became a free agent again this summer, with most sports pundits predicting he would remain in Miami. He then shocked the world.

I’m not having a press conference or a party. After this, it’s time to get to work. But this is not about the roster or the organization. I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get. In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have. I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home.

Other than bitter Miami Heat fans, James’ return to his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers, and the poignant story he penned explaining his decision, all-but made the 2010 “Decision” debacle disappear. Ohio sports fans, business owners, TV and radio hosts, rejoiced. Most importantly–the true power of the media was shown.

Sure, James could’ve tweeted his decision. He could’ve done an interview with ESPN or ABC’s Robin Roberts (they’re friends). Hell, he could’ve written down a team name on a napkin, dumped in in a trash can at the mall, and called sports reporters with its location.

But he decided to write a personal letter to the city of Cleveland, on one of the world’s most popular sport sites, Sports Illustrated. Lebron James is a winner in 2014 not because he will probably lead the Cavaliers to a championship in the next few years (some think this season).

He’s a winner because he taught a telling lesson. It’s not only the people who wear makeup on TV, produce shows in newsrooms, bravely risk their lives to report stories in war zones, or tweet manically all day who make the most impact on people’s lives and communities.

Sometimes, it’s guys and gals with a knack for landing a ball into a basket.

David Muir

5. ABC News: “Good Morning, Evening, and Weekend America”

When things are clicking at a TV news networks, smiles swarm the hallways. I know this first-hand; I used to work at Fox News, where people were generally happy by osmosis. Why not? It’s good to be number one, and people generally pal around with one another when they have something to brag about.

2014 was a good year for ABC News. From seeing legendary journalist Barbara Walters’ retirement off through various TV specials, to maintaining the number one morning show in the face of two of its stars’ abrupt exits, to gaining momentum in the evenings with a new face carrying the torch of Jennings, Gibson, and Sawyer, to surging on Sunday mornings, the champagne’s been flowing at ABC well before the ball drop.

For “Good Morning America”–which lost longtime meteorologist Sam Champion at the end of 2013 and newsreader Josh Elliott in March, more than doubled its 25-54 demo lead over second place “Today” in 2014 compared to 2013 (179,000 vs. 78,000).

And then there’s been the changing of the guard in the evenings; from industry legend Diane Sawyer to the charming, worldly anchor David Muir. “World News” began gaining momentum during Sawyer’s last full quarter anchoring, breaking “Nightly News” with Brian Williams’ 243-week run atop the 25-54 demo. On Labor Day, David Muir took the reins from Sawyer, and has seen early success, beating Williams in the demo on a semi-regular basis and also starting to close the total viewer gap. Overall, Word News has slashed the demo gaps compared to “Nightly News,” particularly in the 25-54 demo, closing its deficit from 250,000 viewers in 2013 to 22,000 in 2014.

And on the weekends, “This Week” with George Stephanopoulos is up double digits in both total viewers and the demo year-over-year, moving past “Meet the Press” to become a stable #2 to first-place “Face the Nation.” “This Week” also saw its fair share of number one total viewer finishes on Sundays on 2014.

There’s also been social success at ABC. The company launched its ABC News app on Apple TV and David Muir recently debuted a Facecast; a one minute Facebook newscast.

With “GMA” continuing to stand atop the morning mountain, Muir gaining momentum in the evening, and Stephanopoulos keeping Sunday mornings steady as the network heads into 2016 election season, ABC executives and talent head into 2015 with much-earned confidence.

***Stay tuned for TheWrap’s Top 5 Media Losers of the year coming soon.

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