The Booming Business of Ellen DeGeneres: From Broke and Banished to Daytime's Top Earner

Hollywood Reporter
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August 23, 2012
Issues: 

"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.