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Six ways media took a big step backward in 2022

Nothing this year brought home the dangers in private ownership of major social media platforms more than the capricious, often-destructive and regularly unpredictable actions of Twitter CEO Elon Musk. He is pictured above at Tesla's "Gigafactory" in Germany on March 22, 2022.
Patrick Pleul
AFP via Getty Images
Nothing this year brought home the dangers in private ownership of major social media platforms more than the capricious, often-destructive and regularly unpredictable actions of Twitter CEO Elon Musk. He is pictured above at Tesla's "Gigafactory" in Germany on March 22, 2022.

As 2022 winds down, it's obvious the past year has been, in many ways, a giant step backward for media.

So much has gone wrong: from fundamental shifts in the streaming business to widespread cutbacks at major media companies — including NPR — and, of course, Elon. And there's one word which sums up the dynamic at the heart of most of this heartache: transition.

Through much of 2022, media outlets suffered painful transitions, leaving the familiar behind for wilder, less predictable terrain. And whether change was sparked by economics, evolving circumstances or pure ego — again, Elon! — each of these moments contain important lessons about the future of media and what's coming on important platforms.

Which is why, even as some critics have crafted fun, end of the year lists for the best moments in entertainment, I'm going to tackle something more serious: the six terrible media trends in 2022.

Elon Musk dismantles Twitter before our eyes

Nothing this year brought home the dangers in private ownership of major social media platforms more than the capricious, often-destructive and regularly unpredictable actions of Musk after he overpaid for Twitter in October to the tune of $44 billion.

Listing all the terrible things he's done since taking control of the platform could fill this entire story. And many of his actions seem the opposite of what Twitter — a social media network dependent on advertising revenue and robust usage — actually needs. He's laid off more than half the staff, increased misinformation, unbanned abusive accounts,suspended journalists who covered him critically and then unsuspended at least some of them, acting in many ways like a petulant king who cannot tolerate contrary views (a marked departure from the free speech absolutism he claimed to champion before closing the deal).

Why should anyone care about the fate of a social media site smaller than Facebook or YouTube? The fact is, Twitter has been an important meeting ground for journalists, academics, politicians, celebrities and average people with something substantive to say. The amalgam of Black-focused conversations known asBlack Twitter has elevated everything from the death of Trayvon Martin to the Black Lives Matter movement and the murder of George Floyd.

But Musk's misadventures have brought powerful lessons. His aura as an unorthodox-yet-effective leader has been brutally wounded. The idea that the mega-wealthy somehow are more capable than everyone else is seriously punctured.

More than anything, Musk's run of terribleness shows that, if you're going to bring chaos and break things at a place lots of people value — you'd better soon come up with a vision that explains why it's all necessary, or it won't be long before much of the world turns its back.

Compassion fatigue: The return of the canceled, from Will Smith to COPS

As a critic, I felt vindicated by the cancellation of both COPS and Live PD in mid-2020. Both shows were an exercise in copaganda, lionizing officers answering calls in the field while showing the people policed in the worst light. Each show was canceled in the wake of the civil rights reckoning which followed George Floyd's death.

But both programs have returned. This year, producers behind Live PD crafted a similar show for the Reelz cable channel, called On Patrol: Live, that was so similar, the A&E channel sued for copyright infringement. (COPS resurfaced on the Fox Nation streaming service last year.) Worse than any copycatting – at least, from my point of view – was the sense that the shows could come back because people had grown tired of keeping them off the air.

I had similar feelings watching Louis C.K. win a Grammy this year for best comedy album, not long after his comedy career imploded in 2017 after admitting a New York Times report about how he sexually harassed and intimidated women in the comedy world was true. Or seeing Will Smith unleash his considerable charisma on red carpets just weeks ago to promote his film Emancipation, months after physically attacking Chris Rock onstage at this year's Oscars.

As a culture, we haven't yet decided how to bring shows and performers back who have been drubbed out of show business for egregious behavior. There is a sense that it should involve some kind of apology and assurance that the terrible behavior won't be repeated – that was Smith's playbook in returning to public life. But that hasn't always happened.

I worry we're seeing the public begin to weary of asking the important questions about exploitation and oppression that movements like #Metoo and Black Lives Matter posed in pop culture just a few years ago. Stop asking those questions, and it probably won't be long before the awful behavior returns.

Media layoffs hit hard, especially in journalism

Along with Warner Bros. Discovery's layoffs (more about those below), media companies like Paramount Global, Comcast, Roku and Disney announced layoffs this year, often in response to slowing advertising sales amid fears of a looming recession.

Cutbacks at journalism outlets include Gannett, The Washington Post, BuzzFeed and Outside, Inc. NPR has announced cutbacks aimed at saving $10 million to avoid layoffs, including suspending its summer internship program next year.

It's just the kind of challenge media outlets don't need, as they continue to struggle against misinformation and maintaining quality local news coverage in communities with fewer and fewer options.

Streaming TV gets smaller and more expensive as the industry hits adolescence

Once touted as the future of television – which it probably still is – online streaming faced a hard reset this year, starting with industry giant Netflix actually losing subscribers in the first two quarters of the year. Since then, Wall Street has begun asking tough questions about whether any but a handful of platforms can grow big enough to make massive profits.

The results, for consumers, have been challenging. HBO Max has pulled material from its library with little warning to subscribers, to take advantage of tax breaks and limit expenses. Netflix, Disney+ and Apple TV+ have all raised prices this year, just as an NPR poll of more than 700streaming service users revealed that cost is their biggest concern in choosing a subscription. (The second-biggest concern? Access to great content.)

And the biggest change Netflix and Disney+ offered this year was a cheaper subscription with ads — an alternative which seems more like a PR move in the face of rising fees rather than anything most streaming consumers are interested in buying.

It's a messy transition: streaming is moving from a promising childhood into a complicated adolescence. Back in the fall of 2019, big companies like Disney and Apple began pouring money and resources into establishing streaming services, well aware that the future of TV viewing was headed there and eager to keep Netflix from dominating it all. The pandemic only accelerated streaming habits that already seemed to be in motion.

But 2022 was the year reality intruded. More traditional forms of media are still where most revenue is made, and streaming platforms have had to make tougher choices. Consumers learned this year: Streaming services will not always offer a bottomless well of content. In the future, they likely will cost more, have a little less library content and cancel more shows more quickly. Welcome to the future.

The contraction and dimming future of late night TV

Too many great late night hosts left the genre in 2022. Samantha Bee was canceled by Warner Bros. Discovery; Desus & Mero stopped their Showtime program after they ended their partnership, James Corden announced he would leave CBS' The Late Late Show next year and Trevor Noah surprised even his coworkers by announcing he would leave The Daily Show seven years after succeeding Jon Stewart.

What's obvious is that viewership is down, the jobs are a grind and its not possible to pay today's hosts what giants of the genre once demanded. Further, late night TV isn't as big a part of the pop culture zeitgeist anymore. Late night icon Johnny Carson could make a performer into a star with one appearance; David Letterman influenced legions of aspiring comics with his groundbreaking comedy.

But modern viewers have increasingly flocked to social media platforms like TikTok, Instagram and YouTube, resulting in dropping ratings and revenue for traditional late night TV shows. At a time when people can watch whatever they want whenever they want, the idea of a late night host capping the day with insightful comedy on topical events may soon feel dated as a $2 bill.

Warner Bros. Discovery cancels and cuts its way to savings

When AT&T spun off its WarnerMedia entertainment company to merge with Discovery in April, few in the industry could project what might happen. Months later, the new company has mostly become known for its cutbacks in the wake of a reported $50 billion in debt.

The moves were jarring: canceling the streaming service CNN+ after just a few weeks; shelving the nearly completed film Batgirl; canceling Samantha Bee's show Full Frontal on TBS; canceling shows like Westworld and The Time Traveler's Wife and removing them completely from HBO Max; canceling CNN's media analysis show Reliable Sources and laying off its host Brian Stelter; canceling Latino-focused shows like Los Espookys and Gordita Chronicles; implementing wider layoffs across CNN and ending original programming on its sister channel HLN, laying off staff including morning anchor Robin Meade.

Some changes at CNN, including the layoffs of Stelter and correspondent John Harwood, led to concerns that the company was muzzling analysts who had prominently criticized conservatives and former president Donald Trump in a bid to become more centrist — an idea CNN Chairman and CEO Chris Licht has strenuously denied.

Of course, it will take tough decisions to rein in so much debt. But entertainment companies also need a brand that performers and consumers actually like — something audiences connect with quality, stability and fun, while content creators see a good steward for their creations.

And they all need a sense that the cuts are serving a grander vision. Breaking things without giving people a good reason why, rarely ends well (see Elon Musk, above).

Being known as the Grinch who cancels shows and lays people off doesn't sounds like a great beginning, no matter how good the numbers look on a balance sheet.

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Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.