After 19 years, Ellen DeGeneres is leaving her perch atop daytime TV this week with a parade of A-list celebrity guests to remind viewers of how her “be kind” approach came to dominate the genre. But her legacy has been cracked by an increased willingness to reckon her reputation as the Queen of Nice with cringey, out-of-touch moments and allegations of a toxic workplace culture.
When The Ellen Show debuted in 2003, it broke ground as one of the first daytime talk shows to feature an openly gay host, reaching millions of viewers in their homes every day and normalizing LGBTQ representation as well as messages about equality and acceptance. Famously opening each show by dancing with the audience, DeGeneres quickly set about packing her show with pranks, heart-tugging interviews, and viral moments to become a ratings juggernaut and essential promotional stop for top celebrities.
But DeGeneres’ star started to dim in 2019 with her defense of her friendship with George W. Bush — a president who supported a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman, among other anti-LGBTQ stances — and a softball interview with Kevin Hart after he lost his Oscars hosting gig because of resurfaced anti-gay tweets. There was also the infamously awkward, and famously memed, interview with Dakota Johnson, when DeGeneres insisted she didn’t know that she was invited to the actor’s birthday party, to which Johnson replied, “That’s not the truth, Ellen.”
Then, in March 2020, comedian Kevin Porter posted a viral tweet asking people for “the most insane stories you’ve heard about Ellen being mean” in exchange for him donating money to the LA Regional Food Bank. The tweet generated thousands of replies that sparked a widespread conversation on the internet questioning the behind-the-scenes authenticity of DeGeneres’ brand of “kindness.”
“I can’t emphasize the lack of forethought and insight I had into writing that tweet. It was literally just me rolling out of bed and thinking about it for three minutes before sending it off,” Porter told BuzzFeed News, adding that he had heard whispers for years about employees being unhappy at the show. “It was such a ripe subject for gossip because of the cognitive dissonance between the public persona and the private truth and behavior, especially in a professional context.”
In July 2020, BuzzFeed News published a series of investigations into the toxic work environment at The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Dozens of former employees said in interviews that they endured racist comments from managers, were fired for taking time off for family emergencies, and worked in a culture of fear and intimidation. In total, BuzzFeed News spoke with more than 85 current and former employees who corroborated these allegations.
Three executive producers — Ed Glavin, Jonathan Norman, and Kevin Leman — also faced allegations of sexual harassment or other misconduct. Norman and Leman strongly denied the allegations. Glavin did not respond to a request for comment. All three were fired from the show in August following an internal investigation by Warner Bros.
DeGeneres originally sent an apology to her staff, saying the show was supposed to be a place of “happiness” where “everyone would be treated with respect.” The talk show host also addressed the allegations on the air after returning from summer hiatus for Season 18, telling viewers, “As you may have heard, this summer there were allegations of a toxic work environment at our show and then there was an investigation. I learned that things happened here that never should have happened.”
“I take that very seriously and I want to say I am so sorry to the people who were affected,” she continued. “I know that I’m in a position of privilege and power and I realized that with that comes responsibility, and I take responsibility for what happens at my show.”
But for many employees, current and former, it wasn’t enough. And the public airing of what had been largely an open secret in Hollywood changed the show’s perception. Ratings started to decline and finding advertisers and sponsors got harder.
In October 2022, the tracking firm Nielsen reported that ratings for The Ellen DeGeneres Show declined by about 37% from its previous season. About 1.7 million average viewers watched Season 18’s premiere week compared to Season 17 in September 2019, when about 2.7 million people tuned in. As of December 2021, the show’s ratings in its final season increased by 10% to a 1.1 live plus same day national household rating, according to Nielsen.
Despite the ratings seesaw, DeGeneres interviewed a range of A-list stars in her final season, including Meghan Markle, Jennifer Aniston, Zac Efron, Diane Keaton, Kim and Khloé Kardashian, Kris Jenner, and even Michelle Obama.
But according to a prominent Hollywood publicist who didn’t want their name used, those celebrities are already established and have relationships with DeGeneres and her team. Newer, up-and-coming talent, though, hasn’t been as excited to appear on the show.
“Once upon a time, in the heyday of Ellen, that show was a career-defining booking for certain talent on the up and up, talent that were really trying to be a part of Hollywood in a big way,” the publicist told BuzzFeed News. “It was the daytime booking to get, and oftentimes led to late night–show opportunities and magazine covers. You would prioritize that because it was so meaningful and was so widely syndicated; it was a different level than booking the Today Show or Good Morning America. There was something about it that felt really premium that felt like you’d broken through and made it.”
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