With her 10-year-old talk show posting strong ratings this season, Ellen DeGeneres and her producers are hoping to do even better next season by mixing a little more pathos in with the comedy and paying attention to individual markets. In addition, she also has to contend with a wave of new competition, while launching a spinoff talker hosted by Bethenny Frankel.
If Ellen DeGeneres has any pre-show jitters, you’d never know it.
She’s running up and down the stairs to say a quick “hello” to guests sitting next to her 81-year-old mother Betty who’s in the audience most days. Each time she does, other audience members stand and scream.
DeGeneres, looking blonder, thinner and lankier than she does on TV, seems genuinely surprised every time they do. She waves her hands as her bright blue eyes dart from left to right: “Hi. Hello. Hey.”
Music is booming. Everyone is shouting, dancing and laughing in anticipation. Michelle Obama is visiting via video, and DeGeneres will surprise hundreds of high school kids listening to the First Lady with gift cards to buy prom outfits. Katharine McPhee will also be on to plug Smash and hurl baseballs at plates with DeGeneres’ face on them.
DeGeneres finally heads backstage, but soon reemerges on camera to thundering applause and shouts as the show begins. She’s all energy as she nails her opening monologue and dances around the studio in her own distinctive style.
She’ll need that high energy level over the next several months. She’s launching her first-ever spinoff this summer. And Warner Bros., which distributes Ellen, expects to see ratings increases on top of this year’s growth.
She will also have to ward off a wave of new competition led by Disney-ABC’s Katie with Katie Couric, although she maintains that the rivals really don’t worry her.
“We just do what we do on our show, and they do what they do on their shows,” she says winding down after the show, but still quick with a quip. “It’s not about competition, even though I’m winning.”
Growing ratings is the top job for DeGeneres; her accomplished team of executive producers; TelePictures, the production company; and Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution, which syndicates the show and sells the barter advertising.
“Over time, as audiences find the show and their substitutes for Oprah, it will continue to grow steadily,” says Ken Werner, president of Warner Bros. Domestic Television. “Some people think flat is good. But we’ve gone against that tide.”
So far this season, Ellen’s average audience is 3.2 million viewers, up 3% over last year. In households, it’s up 4%, to a 2.4 rating.
What’s more, Ellen is a top-rated show in the demographic group that advertisers seek out on daytime TV — women 25-54.
Not counting double runs, in the February sweeps Ellen was tied at No. 1 with Dr. Phil and Disney-ABC’s Live! with Kelly with a 1.7 rating among women 25-54.
Ellen is also growing in key markets. In New York, for instance, it had a 1.6 rating among women 25-54 in the February sweeps, up from a 1.1 a year earlier.
Part of the performance is attributed to Ellen taking over time slots previously occupied by daytime’s No. 1 talk show, Oprah.
Ellen replaced the show in 51 markets. In February, Ellen retained about three-fourths of Oprah’s rating, according to Warner Bros.
However, Ellen can’t count on ratings increases from more time slot upgrades. It’s already airing in the highly sought-after daytime slots 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. on 85% of its stations.
Ellen’s solid ratings go a long way to explain the show’s appeal to TV stations. One syndication executive says Ellen commands the second highest license fees of any syndicated daytime talk show, trailing only Dr. Oz. Warner Bros. would not comment on license fees.
To grow still more, Ellen will have to continue with its no-market-left-behind strategy, says Ed Glavin, one of the three executive producers. Mary Connelly and Andy Lassner are the others.
“If a market wants or needs more attention, we’ll focus on it,” Glavin says.
Adds Lassner: “We’ll try to find a story in that market and maybe give someone a car,” he says. “From that, we get local press and build local awareness. Ten years in, you still need to make people aware of the show. You can’t just assume that people know Ellen and know the show.”
The show’s principal outlets are the NBC O&Os, and producers are hoping that the show benefits from an overall improvement in the stations’ schedule, which is being revamped by Valari Staab, the newly installed president.
It’s expected that two new high-profile talk shows — CBS Television’s Jeff Probst and NBC Universal’s Steve Harvey — will lead into Ellen on many of the NBC stations.
That can only be a big positive. Ellen’s lead-in on WNBC New York this season is the canceled New York Live and on KNBC Los Angeles it is Sony’s Nate Berkus, which is ending its run.
What viewers will not see next season are any big changes in the show itself. There is no reason for them. For the nine seasons it has been on, Ellen has cornered the market on funny.
“There’s a joyfulness to the show that separates us from the other shows,” says Hilary Estey McLoughlin, president of Telepictures Productions. “Our team is great at reinventing the show within that framework.”
The essence of Ellen is that it’s a fun, upbeat, positive show that helps people in need. Often, DeGeneres invites viewers onto the show who need help, whether it’s money to pay bills or a car to get to work.
“We have really expanded the human-interest part of the show,” says Executive Producer Connelly. “I didn’t see that coming. After Hurricane Katrina, we gave a woman named Dianna Beasley a car. She had an amazing attitude, even though she had lost everything. We were touched by her spirit and wanted to encourage it. That feels good to everybody.”
“We clearly started out as a comedy show,” Lassner says. “Now, we’re a comedy, feel-good show.”
The spin-off that DeGeneres and the trio of executive producers are working on is Bethenny Frankel, with the one-time star of Bravo’s Real Housewives of New York City and a frequent Ellen guest.
On June 11, the show will kick off a test on six Fox TV stations, including WNYW New York.
“They’re building on Bethenny’s name recognition,” says Bill Carroll, vice president of programming at Katz Television Group. “She’s always in the news. She’s always on Bravo. She has books and had a line of alcohol.”
The talk show is still in development, but it is likely that Bethenny will have fewer celebrity guests than Ellen. Frankel will probably tap into her real-life interests more than DeGeneres does, like motherhood, business and healthy living.
“Bethenny is different from Ellen,” says Connelly. “She’s sassier. She’s unfiltered. We’re starting from scratch, but she has a huge fan base. People feel like they know her. They watched her get married and have a kid. In many ways, they watched her evolve into the person she is today.”
That Ellen is on some kind of roll — ratings and otherwise — has not gone unnoticed by advertisers, who are gearing up to spend about $2.7 billion in the syndication upfront ad market.
Ellen is one of daytime TV’s most in-demand shows, according to Brad Adgate, senior vice president of research at Horizon Media.
“Advertisers like the show because they like Ellen DeGeneres,” he says. “She’s mainstream and she’s very likeable. Ten years ago, you had the Rosie O’Donnell Show and, for 25 years, you had Oprah.
“They’re both gone. Ellen has taken their spot in daytime TV.”