The Booming Business of Ellen DeGeneres: From Broke and Banished to Daytime's Top Earner
This story first appeared in the Aug. 23-Sept. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
"Let's Have a Little Fun Today" pipes through Ellen DeGeneres' 300-seat theater on the Warner Bros. lot, which on this mid-May afternoon feels more dance party than soundstage. The host pops a breath mint into her mouth and comes bounding out to near-deafening cheers. A sea of middle-aged women is on its feet, arms thrust in the air. The shrieks grow louder as she makes her way toward the audience, waving, nodding and smiling as big as her fans are.
Ellen's 82-year-old mother, Betty, a staple at the show, turns to look at the crowd assembled. "Every time," she notes, shaking her head as if she can't believe the excitement her daughter can generate. "Every time."
Those crowds of enamored women (and, yes, a few scattered men) have remained fiercely loyal for what is an extraordinary period in the world of daytime television. On Sept. 10, the Telepictures talk show will enter its 10th season on air, a milestone few station managers predicted DeGeneres would reach back in 2003, when she was spiraling from her courageous -- and, for a three-year period, career-destroying -- decision to publicly reveal her sexual orientation. At that time, Sharon Osbourne's new (and long-since-canceled) daytime effort was the big draw, with DeGeneres' entry of limited interest. "They said, 'Who is going to watch a lesbian during the daytime?' " recalls DeGeneres, 54, of the sales process. " 'You know these are housewives and mothers, right? What does she possibly have in common with them?' "
As it turns out, plenty. In the aftermath of Oprah Winfrey's daytime departure, DeGeneres' feel-good shtick attracted an average of 3.2 million viewers last season. And those viewers -- more female, upscale and highly educated than those for the average talk show -- are as blue chip as the advertisers courting them. More impressive, the family-friendly show (no who's-your-daddy DNA tests here) raked in $87 million in spot ads in 2011, making it the second-highest-earning syndicated series behind Winfrey's in her final season, according to Kantar Media. Reports have put the show's annual profits in the $20 million range.
That's in addition to DeGeneres' earnings from the show, which, when pooled with those from her production company, record label and best-selling books, total about $50 million a year. Included in that, too, are the rich spokesmodel deals she inks with such companies as CoverGirl and JCPenney, which famously pulled ads from the "coming out" episode of her eponymous ABC comedy in 1997. (More recently, the retail chain stood by its star after the anti-gay One Million Moms group called for a boycott.)
"Being able to be free -- literally -- and to express herself in a way that she can be 100 percent truthful with the audience has allowed them to fall in love with her," says Winfrey, who guest-starred as DeGeneres' therapist in that infamous episode of Ellen. "Honest-to-God truth: I don't believe she would have been as successful as she has become had she not come out."
Indeed, the exuberance and ease that DeGeneres brings to daytime -- even in the midst of the increasingly rancorous national debate on same-sex marriage -- can make anxious moms and tired housewives feel as if a friend is in their living room (or, thanks to segments that appear regularly on Yahoo, on their computer screen). "For an hour each day, Ellen makes you forget your troubles and feel good," says Hilary Estey McLoughlin, president of Warner Bros.-owned Telepictures. "She's an antidote for the times."
And a silly one at that. She'll pal around with kids, prank celebrities and put members of her studio audience in a dunk tank to get laughs. "People tend to gravitate toward the fun," says 12-time guest Taylor Swift, who adds, "In between segments, Ellen leans over and asks me how I'm really doing and checks in with me about what I talked to her about the last time."
Still, no one ever won daytime just by being nice. Behind DeGeneres' laid-back on-air persona is a shrewd businesswoman who recognizes that the competitive field will grow more crowded in September with Katie Couric, Jeff Probst, Ricki Lake, Trisha Goddard and DeGeneres' NBC lead-in Steve Harvey. Her producers insist Ellen will stay its course, differentiating itself through its mix of comedy, feel-good pieces and promotable celebrity interviews.
"These days, most of talk falls into two categories: experts [Dr. Oz] and confrontation [Judge Judy]. Ellen is neither. Her show is pure entertainment, and she's unbelievably likable," says Katz Media Group vp and director of programming Bill Carroll. That DeGeneres has nabbed Swift, Justin Timberlake, Jennifer Aniston and President Clinton to do promos for her 10th season is a strategic reminder -- for fans and rivals -- of her relationship with Hollywood.
On this steamy spring day, DeGeneres is preparing for a Katy Perry interview in her industrial-chic office on the Burbank lot. Four hours before her 4 p.m. tape time, she acknowledges that she isn't planning to push Perry to talk about her failed 14-month marriage to Russell Brand. "Ellen went through a time when she was the butt of the joke, and she has been very good about never wanting anyone to feel that way," says producer Andrew Lassner. Adds DeGeneres: "I will never make someone feel uncomfortable. I'm not here to hurt people's feelings."
Hours later, Perry will get through the three-part segment without once uttering Brand's name -- among the reasons she's likely to return. Instead, the pop star will talk about her religious upbringing, her revealing movie, Katy Perry: Part of Me, and her new favorite show, History's Ancient Aliens -- and that's before she and DeGeneres play a game of Taboo. It's classic Ellen: quirky, safe and highly entertaining.
In her near-decade on the air, DeGeneres has managed to strike a remarkable balance by being agenda-free without shying from who she is, as evidenced by frequent mentions of (and occasional visits from) her wife of four years, Portia de Rossi. Yes, she addresses bullying from time to time and even opted to fire back when the One Million Moms group said JCPenney would lose customers with "traditional values" by hiring DeGeneres. "I usually don't talk about stuff like this on my show, but I really want to thank everyone who is supporting me," she told her viewers in February. "Here are the values that I stand for: honesty, equality, kindness, compassion, treating people the way you want to be treated and helping those in need. To me, those are traditional values."
Mostly, though, her banter is apolitical. "I'd rather celebrate the things we have in common," she says, aware that the hot-button issue of same-sex marriage is likely to rear its head again as the political conventions get under way, just as it did four years ago. "We are all the same people. You're no different than I am. Our love is the same," she told presidential candidate John McCain as they debated the issue on her show during the 2008 election season. True to form, DeGeneres ended the segment on a lighter note, suggesting in jest that McCain walk her down the aisle when she wed de Rossi.