The unexpected downfall of Ellen DeGeneres was one of lockdown season’s more unexpected consequences. After a series of gaffes highlighted her out-of-touch nature and a cycle of reports into the oft-discussed rumors surrounding the toxic work environment of her popular daytime talk-show, it seemed as though her crown had slipped. Widely considered to be one of the most beloved figures in American entertainment, DeGeneres’s reputation with the public took a serious beating (although, as many have already noted, chat about her nastiness and bad behavior behind-the-scenes was the stuff of open Hollywood secrets.) DeGeneres and her team went into crisis pushback after the rumors became too loud to ignore, but they were pushed into apology mode after a report by Buzzfeed detailed a workplace culture of racist microaggressions, suspect hiring and firing practices, and sexual harassment fostered by executives and management.
Since then, Ellen has been trucking on with her show, albeit with the expected social distancing measures in place. If her team assumed that a round of firings and on-air at-shucks mea culpa would wipe the slate clean for audiences, they were sorely mistaken. According to Nielsen ratings, The Ellen DeGeneres Show has lost over a million viewers since its 18th season debuted on September 21, 2020. That season premiere, where Ellen offered her apology, drew show’s highest ratings for a premiere in four years, but audiences clearly didn’t stick around. Competition is, granted, tougher in the daytime talk-show field now, thanks to the growing popularity of newcomers like Kelly Clarkson, Drew Barrymore, and Tamron Hall. COVID-19 has hit viewer numbers across the board for network TV. Still, Ellen’s key demographics are going elsewhere, and according to Vanity Fair, it’s led to a 20% drop in ad revenue for what was once the safest cash cow in the game. The ratings decline has also impacted NBC’s Ellen’s Game of Games, which lost about 32% of its overall viewership this season.
It’s obviously a major blow to Brand Ellen, which has reliably commodified DeGeneres’s well-manicured reputation as The Nicest Lady in Showbiz for years. That doesn’t really work, however, when the relatable veil slips to reveal systemic harassment and workplace safety issues. Audiences can evolve with a celebrity. Just look at Taylor Swift’s evolution over the past few albums. Yet it’s not worked for Ellen. She doesn’t seem to have another option to turn to as a contingency plan. As we’ve noted before, the Nice image always felt like a curious fit for a TV show host who seemed to possess active disdain for her audience and relished pranking guests in a way that bordered on cruel. So, what is Ellen doing now? Has her show changed all that dramatically since everything started to go downhill?
Actually, no. Not in the slightest. It’s almost impressive how little The Ellen DeGeneres Show has changed over the past six months in terms of format. After her apology in the premiere, DeGeneres promised that this season would be her best ever, and I was totally convinced that she was going to go full Final Season of Oprah with things. I was expecting major parties, the biggest guests ever, lavish giveaways, and more. Sure, you can’t go full You Get a Car during a lockdown when your audience is virtual, but she’s never lacked the resources to go big in this way.
She’s not bringing out the dazzling mega-star guests, with the possible exception of Michelle Obama, who’s something of an Ellen regular, and even then, that was a Zoom interview. Some guests are there in-studio, with a healthy two-meter gap between them and the host. The tone is, however, a tad more chipper. For a long time, it felt like DeGeneres loathed having to lob softballs at her guests. Some interviews are actively uncomfortable to watch thanks to her evident contempt for the process. Here, she seems more invested in the job at hand, although it probably helps that guests are still giddily informing her of how excited they are to meet her. It’s interesting, if nothing else, to see DeGeneres clearly working at being the kind of peppy on-screen presence she was during the early days of her talk-show, albeit with a strain of evident weariness. She’s not phoning it in as obviously as she did for a long time, although a change in mood clearly hasn’t been enough for most viewers.
DeGeneres’s show has always relied on a heavy online presence and use of popular internet figures, and that’s only increased this season, probably because hey, nobody’s leaving their house right now so bring on the viral favorites. Actress and vegan chef Tabitha Brown is a new regular, and Kalen Allen is but one of many viral stars to have been welcomed into the Ellen roster, mostly for reaction videos. Her DJ, Stephen ‘tWitch’ Boss has been given a more prominent role on the show’s YouTube channel too, with livestreams in the ad-breaks. It’s hard not to view this particular development differently given that one of the most prominent people to call out the ‘toxicity of the environment’ at The Ellen DeGeneres Show was their previous DJ, Tony Okungbowa.
The biggest change to the show is one that really has nothing to do with the DeGeneres PR game. Shows like this aren’t allowed in-person audiences anymore, and Ellen needed that energy. Even when DeGeneres herself was blatantly irritated to be there, the sheer volume and frenzy of her fans buoyed even the sullenest of viewers. It’s not entirely impossible to recreate this sensation with virtual audiences, although the site of all those at-home viewers on flat-screens trying to mug for the cheap seats is certainly something else. But you sense the shift in energy. It’s not as agonizingly awkward as DeGeneres’s at-home episodes where she lamented the toughness of her life from a multi-million-dollar mansion. Instead, it almost feels like canned laughter, like a sitcom where the fake audience’s responses only further highlight the uncanny nature of the entire enterprise. It’s certainly fitting for the current era of DeGeneres: desperately trying to pretend everything is normal while the laughter gets quieter.
DeGeneres hasn’t said much about the future of her talk-show, although it has already been renewed for a 19th season, and her contract is up at the end of next year. It’s not like she’s going anywhere. She inked a major deal with WarnerMedia in 2019 to make no fewer than four programs for HBO Max. Still, it would say a lot if one of the biggest and previously most indomitable names in media went out not with a bang but a whimper.
Header Image Source: YouTube // Ellen