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Here’s a truism about our modern media culture: Sometimes the most interesting things on TV aren’t actually created for television.
Viral videos have long been an important part of the savvy pop culturist’s media diet. But this year, such videos came together with social media memes to bring a tidal wave of social and cultural changes to our national conversation.
Some of these developments are troubling, to be sure. One year after Jimmy Kimmel fooled news outlets across the country into airing video of a faked twerking accident, too many mainstream media sources are still passing along viral videos and links from other platforms with little or no vetting.
Still, it’s tough to take the measure of the year without including all the unconventional videos and media moments that changed us so much, whether they were images cooked up specifically for television or events captured in a flash by a bystander’s smartphone.
For a fan of TV and media this is has been a paradise of new technology, fresh material and unexpected surprises. Here’s hoping the trend only grows in the new year.
Here’s my list of the Biggest Media Moments That Changed Us in 2014.
10. Hollaback street harassment video goes viral: When the anti-street harassment group Hollaback released a video of actress Shoshana Roberts drawing a deluge of catcalls and sexual propositions while walking the streets in New York City, they offered a visceral, thought-provoking look at how damaging such activity can be. When others pointed out that almost every man shown prominently in the video was black or Latino — and the filmmaker admitted many white men were edited out — Hollaback got its own public lesson on the importance of diversity, too.
9. Sony Hack: These hackers, connected by the FBI to North Korea, didn’t just bring a multinational corporation to its knees by seizing a boatload of emails and confidential information from Sony Pictures Entertainment, forcing it to cancel release of a major movie at an estimated cost of $70 million. They also publicized messages showing Hollywood executives are just as obnoxious and racially insensitive as some of us have feared, picking petty fights and cracking jokes about President Obama preferring films starring black people. What’s next, showing that reality TV shows are fake?
8. David Letterman announces his retirement: Even though we knew it was coming eventually, Letterman’s decision to leave CBS’ The Late Show in May still hit Hollywood like a seismic shock, reshuffling 30 percent of the late night TV universe. With Stephen Colbert heading to The Late Show, Larry Wilmore heading to Colbert’s old timeslot on Comedy Central and James Corden taking over Craig Ferguson’s Late Late Show, late night TV will see more new blood in 2015 than it has seen in decades.
7. Matthew McConaughey on True Detective: I already named this show as one of the best series of 2014. But McConaughey was also the biggest movie star to tackle a TV show this year, ripping down the last barrier keeping film talent from working on the small screen in-between superhero movies and British period pieces.
6. John Oliver goes after Miss America: This was the moment Oliver’s talent for longform rants and his emerging voice as a late night news satirist came together. He and his staff dug up new information deflating the pageant’s claim of distributing many millions in scholarships, then made fun of it in the same breath. I’m thinking 60 Minutes‘ correspondents might want to take an improv comedy class or two next year.
5. Lupita Nyong’o admits she once begged God to lighten her skin: This wasn’t a huge video sensation, but it was a breathtaking moment that summed up how people of color can struggle with their own race-based definitions of beauty. While accepting an award from Essence magazine, the 12 Years a Slave co-star admitted she felt so ugly as a black child she prayed to be turned a lighter color in her sleep, describing the long road to conquering the self hate instilled in her by a white-dominated media and society.
4. Jimmy Fallon’s viral videos modernize the Tonight Show: A big part of Jimmy Fallon’s success in refreshing NBC’s top late night franchise post-Jay Leno has been his mastery of viral videos. From stringing together clips of news anchor Brian Williams to make it seem as if he’s rapping, to recreating Kevin Bacon’s Footloose dance number and having a lip synching battle with Emma Stone, these videos have become viral billboards proclaiming that NBC is hosting the coolest late night party around.
3. Comic Hannibal Buress calls Bill Cosby a rapist: Women had made public allegations that Bill Cosby drugged and raped them a decade ago. But it took cellphone video of a Buress routine slamming Cosby for his moralizing in the face of those allegations, to create a viral signpost of the younger generation’s disdain. An avalanche of accusers began discussing their stories, costing Cosby a TV special, a series deal with NBC and, quite possibly, his legacy as a family-friendly comedy superstar.
2. Ray Rice video ties NFL in knots: The video showing the Baltimore Ravens running back knocking out his soon-to-be wife in an elevator didn’t just put the issue of domestic violence among superstar athletes on the table. It also exposed the hypocrisy and inconsistency of the NFL, which gave Rice a two-game suspension when he admitted to the incident, but saw him released from the Ravens and suspended from the league indefinitely when the video was made public.
1. Video of protests in Ferguson, Mo. and the Eric Garner chokehold death in New York spark #BlackLivesMatter movement: Footage of protests following the police shooting death of Michael Brown and cellphone video of Eric Garner dying after he was subdued in a chokehold by officers have put the issue of policing, race, poverty and crime on the news agenda in ways we haven’t seen in many years. And as much as some expect the public’s attention to move on, it has not for months, as protesters press for closer examination of suspicious deaths, and superstar athletes don t-shirts featuring Garner’s last words: “I can’t breathe.” This is how issues previously underplayed by mainstream media are forced center stage by social memes and viral video, giving new power to voices once overlooked.