Top Media Stories of 2010: Apple iPad, Howard Stern and WikiLeaks

Howard Stern signed a new contract with Sirius radio in 2010, while Larry King left CNN and WikiLeaks released a wide array of confidential documents.
Howard Stern signed a new contract with Sirius radio in 2010, while Larry King left CNN and WikiLeaks released a wide array of confidential documents.

Oh what a year it was, especially for the media. When the history of 2010 is written, it will be remembered as the year of change for the industry, with new technology, new strategies and new players taking center stage. Here are some of the year's top media highlights:

  • The Apple iPad Launches: The Apple (AAPL) iPad met with immediate and rousing success when it launched in April, outperforming even the iPhone with eyebrow-raising sales of 300,000 units on its first day on the market. Analysts now predict that at least 10 million iPads have been sold to date, and Piper Jaffray analyst Eugene Munster forecasts sales may top 21 million next year -- which suggests it could outsell the Mac.

  • Decides to Start Charging: In January, The New York Times (NYT) announced it would place some of its content behind a paywall. Starting next month, the Times will charge a flat fee for heavy readers who aren't subscribers of its site. The charge kicks in after readers reach a certain threshold of articles per month. Like other newspaper publishers, the Times needs new sources of revenue. The question is how many people will be willing to pay for something they've previously received for free.

  • Goodbye, Larry King: Broadcast news host Larry King bid adieu to CNN this month after hemorrhaging viewers for years. Will Brit Piers Morgan, a Britain's Got Talent judge, be able to stem the bleeding? Well, that's a tough question to answer. After all, CNN's record for picking new talent has hardly been infallible. Remember what a smash hit Parker Spitzer wasn't? Political columnist Kathleen Parker and former New York State Governor Eliot Spitzer debuted their news show to poor ratings.

    Morgan, who was fired as the editor of the U.K.'s Daily Mail after the newspaper published bogus photographs that supposedly showed British troops abusing parishioners in Iraq, certainly has his work cut out. King's gabfest Larry King Live averaged 672,000 total viewers and 176,000 in the targeted demographic of adults aged 25 to 54. Those ratings were godawful, but then again so were CNN's overall ratings. And CNN wasn't alone. In 2010, the Time Warner (TWX) cable channel had its worst ratings -- both in total viewers and in the targeted demographic -- since at least 1996, according to TV Newser. Morgan will need to not only equal King's audience, but also surpass it fairly quickly, or his show Piers Morgan Live will be another CNN failure.

  • Hello, Julian Assange: The founder and editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks became the most infamous disseminator of classified information since Daniel "Pentagon Papers" Ellsberg. Noted First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams recently pointed out in The Wall Street Journal that the two cases are very different. Further fueling his infamy are the rape charges against him in Sweden -- although he's denied the charges. Currently, he's under house arrest at a friend's mansion as he fights extradition to Sweden.

    Although Assange has released information recklessly, I think it will prove difficult to make a charge of espionage stick. For one thing, Assange seems to be motivated by a desire -- perhaps a naive one -- for greater transparency and openness. Prosecutors will face a difficult time proving that he was purposely trying to harm the United States. In fact, many of the revelations uncovered by WikiLeaks are nothing shocking. For instance, some allege that Afghan President Hamid Karzi is mentally unstable, which he has denied. Assange will finish 2011 largely out of legal trouble -- and also richer -- unless his reported source Private Bradley Manning strikes a deal with prosecutors. Either way, his planned memoir is sure to be a best seller. Given Assange's penchant for pomposity, though, it may not turn out to be the most entertaining of reads.

  • Howard Stern Stays at Sirius: Porn stars -- and David Arquette -- surely breathed a sigh of relief after Howard Stern decided to stay put at Sirius XM (SIRI) after loudly proclaiming that he wouldn't take no f***ing pay cut. With that kind of language floating around the air waves, it's little wonder that Ford Motor (F) is introducing technology to block explicit Sirius channels including Stern's.

    The shock jock later apologized, saying his remark was the result of a misunderstanding of a statement made by Sirius CFO David Frear. Stern, the self-declared King of All Media, probably decided that staying with Sirius was the least risky alternative. But the episode also suggests that the satellite radio provider is far less dependent on the shock jock than it was previously. Shares of New York-based Sirius, which rose more than 171% this year, are headed even higher in 2011.

  • Political Contributions Get Punished: Keith Olbermann nearly was shown the door at MSNBC after dust-up over the disclosure over political contributions. And Joe Scarborough got caught violating the company's rule that required prior authorization for campaign contributions. It's funny how comic Jon Stewart turned out to be the most biting critic of the host of "Countdown With Keith Olbermann."

    In January, Olbermann called the newly minted senator from Massachusetts "irresponsible, homophobic, racist, reactionary, ex-nude model, tea bagging, supporter of violence against women and against politicians with whom he disagrees." Stewart replied that the remark was the "harshest description of anyone I have heard uttered" and Olbermann conceded that Stewart was right. Several months later, Stewart and Olbermann butted heads over the host of The Daily Show's "Rally To Restore Sanity." Olbermann took offense when Stewart compared his divisive behavior to that of his right-wing counterparts at Fox News.

    Then Olbermann announced he was suspending his show's well-known "Worst Person in the World" segment indefinitely -- and might scrap it outright. The segment returned less than a month later in what Olbermann called a "new and improved" format, which ends up being not much different from the old format. That means you can expect Olbermann to lock horns with Stewart -- and probably his managers -- again next year. While 2011 will likely bring much that's unforeseeable in the media world, at least one thing seems certain: The media will continue to surprise us with all manner of ridiculousness as the 2012 election draws closer.

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