TV Reviews

The rise and fall of The Ellen DeGeneres Show

Let’s go back to 2003. It was a tough year: there was The Columbia disaster, the Iraq War started, and the pandemic SARS was scary for a lot of people (and in Toronto we had the Blackout!). It was post-9-11 and we all needed a lift.

Enter The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

Hosted by Ellen DeGeneres, a 45-year-old Lesbian Comedian, who just wanted to treat people with kindness and make your day. She was the underdog to Oprah’s dominating day-time talk reign. At the time, Oprah was in her 15th season and was the Queen of Day Time. Ellen was a breath of fresh air.

You’ve got to remember – gay marriage wasn’t legalized yet. The US was quite conservative (George W Bush was President) and Ellen was different. She became a beloved icon. She was a trailblazer. She made being gay normal for countless Americans. Her impact at the time was huge.

She grew her show into the biggest talk show of the 2010s and was making millions a year

How the times have changed. Today Ellen’s show is stale, she’s friends with George W Bush, and she and her senior producers have racked up countless accusations of not being kind.

This week she announced that season 19 would be her last. She told Oprah it was no longer a “challenge” for her. Insert eye roll here. There is no way that is the real reason. She would have 100% gone to 20 if this scandal hadn’t hit.

But before we really get into all that, let’s take a small walk down memory lane and remember what Ellen used to be. The moments that made Ellen and the show so iconic.

First off the best era of Ellen was in the late 2000s and early 2010s. These were the ‘red chair’ days. You know the ones. When she switched over to white chairs it was over. Those red chairs had all the iconic moments.

We had Kristin Bell’s Sloth Meltdown:

There were the Rosie and Sophia Grace moments:

Her wedding montage was so beautiful:

Ellen was SO good at getting celebrity teens to talk about their relationships.

Exhibit A: Selena and Justin:

Exhibit B: Taylor Swift.

Taylor had some great Ellen moments over the years. The prank was iconic:

And the Taylor and Zac Efron song is still one of my favourite videos on the internet:

Overall Ellen’s celebrity pranks were fun in this era. The Dennis Quaid is particularly great.

Overall these were good years. The years that made water-cooler moments. Everyone wanted to dance with Ellen.

I wanted to work on her show. It was exactly the kind of programming that made me excited. A mix of interviews, music, and fun moments that make people’s days brighter. We needed a show like Ellen. She was our collective cool aunt.

But then she switched to the white chairs.

The white chairs to me signal a colder show. She was the biggest celebrity in any room and lost her ability to relate to the people. Her pranks got mean, her need to stir up gossip switched from fun to invasive, and I’d argue she lost sense of what everyday people were going through.

The first sign that this was the end was the infamous Dakota Johnston interview in late 2019.

This was a moment in the pop culture zeitgeist and others started coming out with stories that Ellen was fake and mean. I think this narrative could have been brushed aside but unfortunately for Ellen, the pandemic cracked this open further.

When they started to film her show from her house, folks finally got to see just how rich she was. Her place is stunning and yet she referred to it as a jail. For so many people struggling during the pandemic, this was not the escapism they needed. This was a slap in the face and a reminder that other people were thriving while many of us were trying to survive.

Additionally from a production standpoint, the show also got in a lot of hot water for hiring external tech support. This is a union show and that is a huge no-no in the world of TV. Again – a massive slap in the face to her crew. If you are interested in this element of the scandal, Variety wrote up a great piece about it at the time.

So people were angry and this is when her house of cards started to crumble.

In early July, Buzzfeed wrote a story about an employee’s allegations that the Ellen set was a toxic workplace. It was a scathing report. Then in late July, Buzzfeed wrote another story about the Executive Producers at the show engaging in inappropriate conduct.

By then Warner Brothers launched an internal investigation. Then a few days later Ellen wrote her first apology to her staff/crew.

So when she came back in fall 2020 after a summer of controversy she launched into her monologue by apologizing.

Some have accepted this apology others have not – but overall her audience has tanked. According to the NYTs, her show hit an all-time low in ratings this spring, shedding more than one million viewers.

Personally, I just don’t care about Ellen and I haven’t cared about Ellen for years. She should have left the show years ago. So for her to say that the show isn’t a challenge anymore and that’s why she’s leaving… that’s suspicious.

This Op-Ed from the NYT is particularly good at explaining how she lost her touch.

So what can we learn from the Ellen downfall?

I’ve talked about this with friends and colleagues but it is my personal goal to bring talk tv back to traditional Canadian TV. I want to produce a talk show for CBC. I think our country needs it.

I know I’m not ready to be an EP quite yet but I’m building all the blocks I need to go for it. A lot of the moves I’m making fit into this big-picture goal. So let’s just say I’ve given a lot of thought to what makes a good Talk Show and what makes a good talk show host.

Here’s my theory on hosting. A talk show host needs to be able to hit three tones:

1 – They need to be good at interviewing. This is a talk show after all and you need to be able to interview anyone. Ellen was good at this until she stopped caring about the people on her show. You can tell when she doesn’t like someone. You can tell when she’s disinterested. Tom Power is excellent at interviewing. Graham Norton is one of the all time greats. You need someone who can ask good questions and make people feel comfortable and willing to open up. Ellen hasn’t be able to do that for a while.

2 – They need to pass the dunk-tank test. If I told a host we were doing a dunk tank in the middle of Yonge and Dundas Square and they would be in the dunk tank, they need to be game. They need to be game to put on a stupid costume and be willing to make fun of themselves. Ellen’s downfall is that she made other people get in the dunk tank. I don’t believe Ellen would like it if someone pranked her. I think she needs to be in control and that doesn’t work in 2021. James Cordon is very good at being silly. Someone like Lilly Singh would be game to get in there and play the game. This is critical. This makes you *actually* relatable and authentic.

3 – You need to be able to crack a joke one week and then in an articulate and authentic way talk about serious issues the next. As an audience we come to TV to escape our lives – we’re here for the silly moments, but we also turn to TV to make sense of tragedies, process our anger, or talk about the big things. Jimmy Kimmel is great at this. He can crack jokes all day long, but when his son needed heart surgery he was able to emotionally connect with the audience. I also think James Cordon is good at this. This is a major issue with Jimmy Fallon. Ellen is also in this boat. She cannot be serious and that is a serious issue. It’s why her apologies haven’t worked – people don’t believe them because they don’t believe her when she gets serious.

I have someone in mind who is an up and coming Canadian who I think passes this test and I would love to see them host a show for us. However – you can’t rely on a person to make a show.

This is the other issue with The Ellen DeGeneres Show. It should have never been The Ellen DeGeneres Show. It should have been The Afternoon Show WITH Ellen DeGeneres. I hate to say it – but you cannot rely on your talent. You need to make them replaceable.

Think about CBC’s q. That show is an excellent format with an excellent crew. When the host needed to be replaced they were able to do so easily because the show was not named after them. Again – think about the late-night shows. It’s The Late Show with or The Tonight Show with or The Late Late Show with. This is a smart business model.

When I set up my show in the future you better believe I’m not branding it around a single person. I’m branding a show and creating an institution that can last longer than any individual in front of or behind the camera.

Yes you can create a show around a good person but unfortunately it doesn’t always work out and you need insurance for those cases.

This proves it. Unfortunately, when Ellen goes down, her whole show goes down and everyone who works there will lose their job. That’s a massive problem (and probably why they kept her running for so long).

It seems like she’s going to try to keep Ellen Tube up and running – but I’m curious if that will be sustainable. I think the ‘Ellen’ brand is tarnished and anything with her name on it needs to go.

Anyways I could go on about this for hours but I’m going to wrap it up with this.

I’m really optimistic about the state of daytime TV. Kelly Clarkson has a great show. The Drew Barrymore Show is great. I hope these two ladies have long careers. I’d love to see more diversity in daytime talk… I’d love to see a man host a daytime show and more women in late-night but that’s a whole other post.

Ellen will end after season 19 in 2022.

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