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Defining a Decade: How the Aughties Changed TV

Hillary Atkin Posted January 8, 2010 at 10:39 AM

Think back to the year 2000. Ah, yes. Y2K, those innocent days before 9/11, when reality television was just making major inroads with the huge popularity of “Survivor,” before Jack Bauer became a ticking terrorist ass-kicker, before “American Idol” changed the pop culture landscape and when Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather reigned supreme over their respective network newscasts.

The dot-com 1.0 party was in its last euphoric throes on its way to crashing and burning, yet YouTube and Hulu were years away from changing the way people consume video. TiVo and DVRs were around, but hadn’t penetrated the marketplace. Most cell phones couldn’t access the Internet—they were text-capable but not many in the US actually texted anyone — and TV stations didn’t have their own Web sites streaming live video of breaking news, much less transmitting to then-nonexistent iPhones, Blackberries or other "smart" mobile devices.

It was a time when Tony Soprano was solidifying his power base in New Jersey as the corpses stacked up and Carrie Bradshaw and her fashionable entourage were becoming icons in living the fabulous single life in New York City.

The Aughties saw the end of beloved, groundbreaking shows like “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City,” but spawned new ideas and entertainment that shaped our lives and drove the conversation. These are some of the decade’s game-changers across the cable and broadcast spectrum:

Fox’s “24” and Real-World Terrorism: Against the backdrop of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the cathartic experience of watching the time-pressured Jack Bauer brutally wring whatever he wanted from evildoers intent on killing thousands of innocents—along with the Abu Ghraib torture photos scandal—kick-started a national conversation about how enemy combatants are treated. The fictional character became representational on both sides of the fence — as hero or villain — and the controversy over the show’s depiction of Islamic terrorists led to Kiefer Sutherland doing a public service campaign to mitigate some of the accusations of racial profiling. In light of recent events, and with the upcoming season set in New York, “24” will remain a lens through which many people view the war on terror.

The Daily Show’s Huge Impact: just when you thought Jon Stewart couldn't get any hotter, or overexposed —  remember all those mid-decade magazine cover stories? — he and his “Daily Show” team of fake reporters proved they hadn't peaked with their 2004 and 2008 “Indecision” election coverage. The show’s guest slot became and remains a coveted go-to spot for politicians, world leaders and authors — with an occasional movie star thrown in for good measure. "TDS’s" spawn went on to great good fortune, most notably Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell, whose Stephen and Steven segments are still fondly remembered.

The Juggernaut that is 'American Idol': Paula, we miss you already. Ten years ago, who could have possibly predicted the massive phenomenon that became “Idol?” (Or Ryan Seacrest becoming a near industry unto himself?) Fan or no — and those who weren't were definitely in the minority – “AI” brought major talent to the world stage. Jennifer Hudson, Kelly Clarkson, Adam Lambert, Carrie Underwood and Jordin Sparks can all tip their hats to “Idol,” as do the accountants at Fox Broadcasting Co. With Ellen DeGeneres taking the Paula judging spot, Simon Cowell nearly ready to take a final bow and ratings somewhat on the decline, the peak glory days may be in the past, but the program’s power and progeny (“Dancing With the Stars,” “America’s Got Talent,” etc.) live on.

New Faces of News: The evening news anchor desks had historically been held by older white men, but by the end of the decade, two of the three were occupied by women who made their names on the softer side of news, in the morning. Did the format change? Not so much. When you’ve only got 22 minutes of news, there’s not much time or space for major formula revisions. And the audience — whose size has deteriorated even as the median age increased — really wasn’t up for ch-ch-changes. Still, network news is far from dead — as some pundits have pronounced it for years. And 24-hour cable news, which drives a large swath of political debate from both sides and down the middle in filling its bottomless news hole, isn’t expected to retrench. Even these days, it’s still cost-effective programming.

Food as Entertainment: The Aughties brought foodies another venue outside of the kitchen, the bookstore or the restaurant to indulge their passion and learn some new cooking tricks. Whether your favorite flavor was “Top Chef,” “Iron Chef” or “Kitchen Nightmares,” or your TV was permanently tuned to the Food Network, television catered to the concept of cooking as sport. A far cry from the days when “The French Chef With Julia Child" on PBS was the only game in town. Hungry for more? No shortage of food shows is on the horizon.

Reality as Reality TV: These days, having your own reality show is a career move for untold thousands, who will go to any lengths to attain it. (Example A: the heinous Heene media hos.) The pay might be low, but the perks can be great — extending far beyond the old-school 15 minutes of fame. Whether it’s being a contestant on “The Bachelor,” sewing your way to stardom on “Project Runway,” being a “Real Housewife” (Salahis, anyone?) or becoming a “Biggest Loser,” the tabloid shelf life can be lucrative. Reality television decimated the ranks of scripted television shows and their writers, producers and actors — and sadly, there’s no going back.