When hearing that a Rutgers University student flung himself off a bridge 2 1/2 years ago after he was outed on the Internet as gay, Ellen DeGeneres felt a familiar pain.
“It was just breaking my heart,” she recalled about the death of 18-year-old Tyler Clementi, who was distraught after his encounter with another man was revealed by a college roommate who had hidden a webcam in their room. “I had to say something.”
So she used the stage of her syndicated daytime talk show to deplore bullying, ticked off names of other gay teenagers who had committed suicide, then made an appeal to the scores of lonely kids who might be struggling with their identities: “Things will get easier, people’s minds will change,” she said, her voice breaking. Ever since, she has signed off each show with a simple plea to her audience: “Be kind to one another.”
And though it wasn’t premeditated, that tangible empathy has helped fuel DeGeneres’ growing popularity on multiple platforms, almost as though she made compassion cool again on TV.
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The comedian who incited a riot in culture when she came out as gay 16 years ago on her ABC sitcom has experienced a surge in popularity that has surprised many. Most TV shows lose their edge after five to seven years, and audiences drift away. But “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” now in its 10th year, is drawing its biggest audience ever. Its ratings among the important daytime demographic of women ages 25 to 54 have climbed 13 percent compared with last season.
DeGeneres also boasts the most-watched TV celebrity channel on YouTube, where clips from her show have been watched 1.7 billion times. She has 17 million followers on Twitter and, at age 55, she is the face of CoverGirl’s best-selling line of makeup.
Last week, Walt Disney Co.’s Pixar said it plans a sequel to its blockbuster film “Finding Nemo,” starring DeGeneres, who will reprise the voice of the befuddled blue tang fish. The film will be called “Finding Dory.”
DeGeneres’ increased popularity can be attributed to several factors, television watchers say, including a softening of cultural attitudes and a growing fatigue among viewers for the coarse slap-downs and boundary-pushing behavior that has become a staple of daytime TV and reality shows. The departure of Oprah Winfrey left a gap for emotional fare on daytime TV that DeGeneres’ show has begun to fill.
The Internet too has become a potent tool to engage younger audiences, who delight in DeGeneres’ goofball humor, her “oh, my goodness” charm and her message that it’s OK to be yourself. People like DeGeneres because she’s nice.
“Ellen is an antidote for the times,” said Hilary Estey McLoughlin, president of Telepictures Productions, which produces the talk show. “She focuses on being kind to others in a bully culture.”
DeGeneres’ rise has helped modify Hollywood’s perception of a leading lady, inspiring a wave of characters who are both offbeat and nice. On NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” Amy Poehler plays a do-gooder city official. On CBS’ “Mike & Molly,” Melissa McCarthy is a sweet and tubby fourth-grade teacher. On ABC’s “The Middle,” the klutzy teenager Sue brims with wide-eyed optimism.
“The Ellen DeGeneres Show” almost didn’t make it to the air. A decade ago, Warner Bros. struggled to license the show to TV station groups around the country. Station chiefs worried that DeGeneres’ humor would be “too dirty” for the middle-aged homemakers who watch daytime TV, Warner executives recalled. Producers sent DeGeneres to do her stand-up routine for station executives to demonstrate that her comedy was tame.
“I don’t know what they thought,” DeGeneres said. “That I would stand in front of a rainbow flag and play a heavy rotation of Melissa Etheridge, Indigo Girls and k.d. lang?”
Her talk show attracts 3.5 million viewers a day, including those watching digital video recorded playbacks, up from just more than 2 million in its inaugural season. “Judge Judy” and “Dr. Phil” continue to attract more viewers in daytime, but this season DeGeneres’ show edged into a first-place tie with “Dr. Phil” in the preferred audience demographic.
DeGeneres’ ratings also are up 10 percent among the more fickle crowd of women ages 18 to 34. At a time when broadcast networks are starved for viewers in prime time, daytime “comfort food” programming has experienced a ratings uptick this year.
DeGeneres has strongly outperformed a string of daytime challengers who have tried and failed to replace the longtime queen of television, Winfrey – CNN’s Anderson Cooper, “Survivor” host Jeff Probst and former CBS News anchor Katie Couric.
Her devoted audience and positive message have made the former stand-up comic from Louisiana a magnet for major marketers, including Procter & Gamble, which uses DeGeneres to promote the best-selling CoverGirl-Olay line of “simply ageless” makeup. American Express and American Airlines are sponsors, as is J.C. Penney, which last year made DeGeneres its spokeswoman.
DeGeneres’ show was on track to surpass $100 million in advertising revenue in 2012 – more than double “Dr. Phil’s” haul, according to Kantar Media. Last month, NBC and other television stations re-upped their deals with Warner Bros. to extend production of DeGeneres’ show through 2017.
DeGeneres’ star burns just as brightly in digital media – ignited by her younger fans. Her YouTube channel has generated more than three times the traffic of the second-most-popular TV comedian, ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel.
“Ellen is really the only daytime show I watch,” said Rachel Waxman, 16, of Manhattan Beach, Calif. Waxman doesn’t watch the program when it airs at 4 p.m. on KNBC-TV because she’s busy with sports or homework. Instead, she visits DeGeneres’ YouTube page at night to view clips of the show and watches recorded episodes on weekends.
“She’s really cool, and she’s so incredibly real,” Waxman said. “You feel good after watching her show.”
Feeling good, and feeling good about feeling good, are keys to the DeGeneres’ brand.
“Ellen’s message of being yourself and being accepted for who you are really resonates with younger viewers,” said Melanie Shreffler, an analyst with the marketing research group Smarty Pants. There is no stigma for gay people among younger viewers, she said, another reason DeGeneres has become a role model. “She’s willing to be offbeat and be a little dorky on camera. Her humor works because she is safe enough and just out-there enough.”
DeGeneres’ compassion, experts said, is a major part of her appeal. Ratings increased after the show began seeking people to help in the heartwarming “make a difference” segments that often provoke tears.
Recently, DeGeneres’ advertisers donated $20,000 to pay down a fan’s student loans, and the show flew a 7-year-old Idaho boy awaiting a heart transplant to Los Angeles so he could go to Disneyland.
“She signs off each show by saying be kind to others, and that is really refreshing in media today,” said Waxman, the California teenager.