Long before DeGeneres' show came under fire, culture problems were rife at several shows produced by Telepictures: "What you had at 'Ellen' are showrunners who came from notoriously toxic environments."
On Aug. 17, Warner Bros. Television confirmed that Ellen DeGeneres Show executive producers Ed Glavin and Kevin Leman, also the head writer, and co-executive producer Jonathan Norman were being dismissed following an investigation into workplace toxicity, sexual harassment and discrimination. A week later, Bernadette Zilio, a 27-year-old former TMZ on TV staffer who worked at the company from 2015 to 2020, filed her own discrimination complaint, claiming Harvey Levin’s celebrity gossip outlet had subjected her to years of misogynistic indignities, only to fire her after she went to HR. That was followed by a scathing exposé published by BuzzFeed News on Sept. 8, alleging that TMZ is "a hotbed for racism, misogyny and verbal abuse."
To the average person, the two workplaces could seem unrelated. But Ellen and TMZ both end in credits that feature a twirling "T" — for Telepictures, the syndication giant that produces both, plus Extra, The Real and Judge Mathis, among many others. A Hollywood Reporter investigation into Telepictures, a subsidiary of Warner Bros. Television, reveals it to be a repeat offender when it comes to breaches of professional protocol. According to interviews with more than two dozen current and former Telepictures employees — both at the studio and on its shows — the culture, which once typified the rough-and-tumble world of syndicated TV, has simply not kept in step with the rapidly changing times.
It’s a troubling pattern that stretches as far back as its first daytime megahit, The Rosie O’Donnell Show, which ran in syndication from 1996 to 2002. Several key figures in the Ellen and TMZ affairs were executives on Rosie and were later shuffled around among other Telepictures productions — like The Bonnie Hunt Show and The Tyra Banks Show — where similar problems arose, according to multiple people with knowledge of the situations. One of the original Rosie producers, Andy Lassner, remains at Ellen as an executive producer.
"What you had at Ellen are showrunners who came from notoriously toxic environments," says a former Telepictures producer who worked at the company in the early 2000s, "so what resulted was the worst of all those worlds. A place where the EPs cater to the host, restrict virtually every other staffer’s access to the host, and then make you work 80- to 90-hour weeks almost for sport 'because that’s what they had to do.' " (Since the Ellen revelations, Warner Bros. has taken several ameliorative measures, including guaranteeing paid vacation days.)
Among the many disturbing allegations made to The Hollywood Reporter by former staffers of Telepictures and its shows — many of whom requested anonymity over fears of retribution — are instances of verbal abuse; frequent and unwarranted firings (and, conversely, vague contracts that made it difficult to leave); overworking; instances of gender discrimination; absent or ineffective human resources departments; and nepotism.
In a statement to THR, WarnerMedia says: "We are hopeful that our industry has finally reached a turning point and recognizes that behavior that may have been tolerated decades ago simply can no longer be accepted. To that end, we take all allegations of abuse or discrimination seriously, regardless of time frame, and will investigate these claims."
But not everyone in the industry is convinced the clouds have parted. "It’s so dark," says one ex-Telepictures producer. "Late night shows, which were historically the more stressful, nowadays are much happier places than daytime shows."
Telepictures was founded in 1979 as a means of syndicating content from Rankin-Bass, the animation studio behind Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. By the 1980s, it had merged with Lorimar Productions and was churning out a mix of animated series including ThunderCats and daytime programming such as Love Connection and the original People’s Court. After the company was purchased by Warner Communications (now WarnerMedia) in 1988, it was overseen by then-Lorimar president Les Moonves. Two years later, Moonves left the company to join CBS, where he would remain until he was forced out in 2018 after allegations of sexual misconduct, which he denies. The company largely ran independent of the studio — its offices were even separate from the Warner Bros. lot — until a 2013 corporate restructuring, which eventually led to new management and leadership.
It was Moonves’ successor — former Telepictures president Jim Paratore, who died of a heart attack at 58 on a 2012 cycling trip in France — who is most frequently cited as the architect of the Telepictures culture. "He was a hothead from New Orleans," recalls one Rosie staffer who describes Paratore as a "bully" who "set the tone for everyone else, barking and calling people 'fucking idiots' without regard for the humiliation or embarrassment of it happening in front of your peers." But Paratore also had his fans, including Ellen DeGeneres herself, who credited him with reviving her career by convincing her to do a talk show; and staffers at TMZ on TV, which he helped run after stepping down from the top job at Telepictures. The sentiment there was that he "grounded" TMZ co-founder Levin and that "as soon as he passed, there was no angel to the devil."
Paratore and Levin had developed a working relationship on Telepictures’ Celebrity Justice, a progenitor to TMZ that ran in syndication from 2002 to 2005. Another Justice producer, Lisa Gregorisch-Dempsey, has been the Extra showrunner since 2000, and took her cues from her brash colleagues. "Lisa was tough, and sometimes she did Game of Thrones-type shit with the people she surrounds herself with," recalls Steve Santagati, an Extra reporter in the early 2000s. "Back then, a lot of comments were made, and that’s part of the business. If your skin’s not thick, you get out." Asked for comment, Gregorisch-Dempsey says: "Here’s who I am: focused, strong, fair and honest. I also happen to be a woman."
Just as Ellen was getting off the ground in 2003, another Telepictures project, The Caroline Rhea Show, was sued over alleged racial and age discrimination by its bandleader (the case was later dismissed and entered arbitration). The lawsuit references recently dismissed Ellen producer Glavin, who started his Telepictures career at Jenny Jones and then went on to work at the company’s The Queen Latifah Show and The Larry Elder Show before co-executive producing Ellen. "I was proud to be working with Caroline Rhea and equally proud to be the first Puerto Rican bandleader on American television," former bandleader Carlos Alomar wrote in a statement to THR. "But the culture surrounding Caroline Rhea changed drastically when Ed Glavin was brought in by management." (Alomar did not elaborate on how. Glavin declined to comment for this story.)
According to one person of color who worked in Telepictures’ corporate offices, executives repeatedly made racially charged comments. The Real, this source said, was referred to by some execs during the early development process as "the down-market View" or "the ghetto View" (a second source at the Telepictures offices at this time corroborated this observation). "It was definitely an environment where I was, to my face and about me, told some of the most racist things I’ve encountered in my career," the Telepictures corporate office employee said.
Earlier this summer, The Real co-host and comedian and Insecure actor Amanda Seales called for more Black leadership at the popular Telepictures talk show, hosted by a panel of women of Black, Asian and Latinx descent. She left the show after six months, Seales explained in an interview, because "the people at the top are not respecting the necessity for Black voices to be at the top, too."
Ellen staffers say racial insensitivity has been a problem there as well. Three Ellen employees recall hearing jokes invoking the N-word in the office in the 2000s and 2010s. ("There is no world at The Ellen Show in particular that a racially insensitive remark would have been tolerated," a WarnerMedia representative says. The recent WarnerMedia investigation into The Ellen DeGeneres Show also did not find a racist work culture on the show, though some staffers mentioned moments of racial insensitivity.)
At TMZ, multiple former female employees say they routinely experienced gender discrimination. "A thousand percent, Harvey gives men preferential treatment," says Zilio, who appeared on camera on TMZ on TV. "The running joke is that when a girl speaks, he doesn’t look in your direction. It’s like he doesn’t see you. He really only listens to what the guys have to say. It’s always sexist and disgusting and just offensive." On Sept. 10, Zilio published an open letter to Warner Bros. CEO Ann Sarnoff, urging Sarnoff to use this moment to prove the company is "committed to women’s rights." In a statement, TMZ and its sister site TooFab said Zilio was fired for plagiarism and inaccurate reporting. "This is a blatant attempt to use negative publicity and inaccurate claims to force TooFab and TMZ to pay a monetary settlement. We will vigorously defend against any attempt to mischaracterize what is a legal and justified employment decision." Zilio denies their allegations. Levin, who suffered a serious cycling accident in June, declined to comment.
Former TMZ writer Taryn Hillin sued TMZ Productions, EHM Productions, Warner Bros. Entertainment and Evan Rosenblum in 2014, also on the basis of gender discrimination, claiming in her suit that female writers were often fired weeks into their jobs at TMZ, that she faced "derogatory and discriminatory comments" from her boss and that male writers were frequently favored over her. (Hillin, whose case was dismissed and entered arbitration, declined further comment to THR.) A 2014 California Department of Fair Employment and Housing complaint by former reporter Ryan Naumann, first reported on by BuzzFeed News and obtained by THR, alleges that Levin outed him as a gay man in front of co-workers and that he quit because of the discriminatory environment. After receiving a right to sue notice, Naumann ultimately chose not to bring a lawsuit.
Former employees at The Ellen DeGeneres Show, TMZ and Telepictures also recall frequent belittling of underlings. "Ed [Glavin] created this culture where you would get verbally abused and yelled at and told off millions of ways," says one former Ellen employee, who worked on the show in the 2000s. Levin, too, is described as "a yeller" by multiple sources, who confirmed the BuzzFeed News report detailing instances in which Levin would berate subordinates with comments like "My dog takes better instruction than you!"
Hillin’s 2014 lawsuit against the company claimed that exec producer Evan Rosenblum "routinely yelled at and humiliated Plaintiff" and "made derogatory comments" while Zilio’s 2020 lawsuit claims TooFab former managing editor Joseph Kapsch’s "mood was erratic, and he would often go from being calm to yelling in a matter of seconds." (Kapsch previously was an editor at THR.) An ex-employee working under former Warner Bros. Television Group senior vp digital and TMZ general manager Brett Bouttier in the 2010s recalls Bouttier frequently yelling. Bouttier and his wife, former Telepictures senior vp programming and development Sheila Bouttier, both made The Brown List (an anonymously edited, crowdsourced list of the worst bosses in Hollywood) in 2011 and 2012. (Neither Bouttier works at Warner Bros. anymore.)
On shows including The Ellen DeGeneres Show, TMZ on TV (as well as the TMZ website itself) and Extra, non-crew staffers signed lopsided contracts pledging them to the production for any number of years while granting their employers the power to fire them at will, staffers say. "It’s kind of a mental bullying tactic where people, especially young people, don’t quit because they’re afraid to be sued," one former Telepictures executive tells THR. "They made everybody from a production assistant to an executive producer sign these contracts," another former executive says. "They would bully them and bully them until [even PAs] would stay, thinking that they were going to get sued. If you’re a PA living with four other people in West Hollywood, and this company says they’re going to come after you, you believe them." A WarnerMedia representative notes, in response, that "it’s pretty standard for production employees to have employment contracts — certainly everyone working on the show in that era did sign agreements; they still do." Contracts were, years ago, more "aggressive" because of a competitive landscape, the representative adds.
Several staffers complained of being subjected to crushing hours — 80-hour workweeks were not uncommon — not because the demands of the job were particularly overwhelming, but because that was simply expected of them. "The culture is 'This show is the most important product in America,' " says one former Telepictures producer. "Everyone is expected to work until 11 p.m. and on weekends. Even if your work is complete, you have to sit around and wait for 'notes.' " The producer, who worked under Glavin, recalls once having "dared to leave before 11 p.m. after having been there since 6:30 a.m. The next day, he walked by my office and instructed me in a weirdly menacing tone to never leave before him again." If they complained, employees were "blacklisted and fired," the producer says, "ostensibly because 'people would kill for this job.' "
Several ex-employees who spoke for this story maintained that they never had contact with an HR representative; others remembered that they were hired by someone presumably in an HR department, never to hear from or see them again. At The Ellen DeGeneres Show, one employee from the 2000s remembered that complaints had to go through a "proper protocol": reported to a boss and eventually to an executive producer, but "if the person at the next level was afraid of Ed [Glavin], let’s say, that problem just kind of didn’t go away. The reporting never made it to Ed." Another from the 2010s recalls HR representatives showing up only for an annual sexual harassment seminar. A 2010 lawsuit filed by a former TMZ reporter who also served as a producer and camera operator alleges that after he reported to his managers twice that co-workers’ drinking and drug use on the job made for a toxic work environment, he was abruptly terminated. (The plaintiff, Christian Shostle, did not respond to THR’s request for comment.) Zilio and Hillin also allege having been terminated after reporting gender discrimination. A representative for WarnerMedia says Human Resources has changed since WarnerMedia underwent a restructuring in 2013, but that a process for complaints would have been in place at these times.
At TMZ’s current offices in Playa Vista, several former employees say, the newsroom is open and office walls are glass; Levin surveys all from an elevated desk overlooking reporters. If a conversation did occur in a glass conference room, "Harvey would see you. Then he’d call that executive or lawyer and ask what it was about," one ex-TMZ employee from the 2010s says. Trainings on workplace culture weren’t taken seriously, a second 2010s ex-employee recalls: "Even for training seminars we would have on sexual harassment or stuff like that, I was specifically told to sign in and leave." A WarnerMedia spokesperson says, "I don’t think there’s a world where that would be tolerated. That’s certainly not policy."
"It was always difficult to figure out who the right HR person was," says Zilio. "Are they in this building? How to contact them? Every time I went there, there was no record of any reports I made prior. Nothing was ever found to be wrong. Every single time. They have a 'no retaliation' policy, but that’s a joke. I was retaliated against every time and finally fired."
In BuzzFeed News’ first story on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, two anonymous former employees recalled their roles being eliminated after they had taken medical and bereavement leaves. Employees at multiple Telepictures shows tell THR they feared asking their bosses to take a sick day — and rarely did. "I was always told by [my boss], 'Never take a sick day, even if you’re sick,' " one former Ellen employee from the 2010s says. "I saw other people literally vomit in the bathroom because they were so sick, but they feared for their jobs." Two former TMZ employees from the 2010s recall supervisors frowning upon staffers’ leaving the office for doctors’ appointments on weekdays. The same was true at The Rosie O’Donnell Show, one former crewmember recalls, saying that taking a sick day was "tantamount to getting let go." A representative of WarnerMedia says that "all employees get sick time" and that Ellen staffers have been reminded of the leave policy.
Perks for upper-level Telepictures execs — particularly on Ellen — were substantial. Per multiple show sources and one executive source, executive producers often received the audience gifts during the show’s annual 12 Days of Giveaways contest, including gift cards worth hundreds of dollars each and multinight stays at hotels and resorts.
Though crewmembers were prohibited from bringing friends and family to give-away shows, executive producer Glavin once brought multiple guests to a show where audience members received vouchers for flights on a new airline, according to several Ellen staffers. The practice wasn’t limited to The Ellen DeGeneres Show: According to a source who worked at another Telepictures entity, "If we were going to give away 100 [of an item], we needed 110, and Telepictures executives got those extra freebies."
Top producers at Telepictures didn’t just test the limits of their power when it came to giveaways. A former employee who booked travel at Ellen remembers that on the second hectic day at the job, an executive producer’s girlfriend called to ask for flight "options" for a personal, non-Ellen-related trip. When the employee responded, "That’s not my job," the executive "didn’t talk to me for two years, literally."
Nepotistic hiring practices abound: Levin’s longtime partner, Andy Mauer, is director of talent acquisition and formerly the head of consumer products at TMZ; TMZ executive producer Evan Rosenblum is married to Samantha Billett, daughter of People’s Court executive producer Stu Billett, where Levin also worked; former Telepictures president and now The View senior executive producer Hilary Estey McLoughlin’s husband, Daniel McLoughlin, briefly worked for Telepictures as the head of a website called Luxaholics.com; and, according to three sources, Glavin’s wife, former Jenny Jones producer Deborah Harwick Glavin, remained on the Telepictures payroll during Glavin’s time on Ellen. A representative for WarnerMedia says, "It’s a very small world and none of the things you mentioned were secret. They were all well-known, and they were not manager-subordinate relationships."
One reason Ellen was able to avoid airing its dirty laundry as long as it did was corporate synergy: TMZ routinely declines to report on DeGeneres stories. Five former staffers say that they were discouraged from writing negative stories about DeGeneres because, in the words of one, "she makes too much money for Telepictures." The informal rule against covering DeGeneres began when the host gifted a rescue dog, Iggy, to her hairdresser without notifying the animal shelter. "We started reporting on it, and then one day it was a blast announcement: 'We do not do Iggy' stories," the former staffer says. Ever since, stories about DeGeneres on the website have been rare and, when they do run, skew positive.
Since BuzzFeed published its Ellen stories, WarnerMedia has made moves to improve the show’s environment. In early August, as part of its overall restructuring, the studio folded Telepictures into its Warner Bros. unscripted TV division. The company has also implemented a new benefits program that includes a total of five more days of vacation in addition to each employee groups' preexisting agreement and hiatus time and paid time off for doctor appointments and family events.
WarnerMedia also appears to be beefing up its centralized HR efforts: Recent job openings include an executive director of employee relations and two labor relations managers focused on investigations. A WarnerMedia says "there is no connection" between the new job postings and recent stories about The Ellen DeGeneres Show and TMZ.
Sept. 17, 8:49 a.m. Updated to correct that The Ellen DeGeneres Show recently added an additional five days to its employee benefits.
This story first appeared in the Sept. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.