Originally created 05/24/04

Ellen DeGeneres rebounds after career slump - and comes out on top



LOS ANGELES -- If Ellen DeGeneres is carrying heavy baggage these days, it's only because she's stuffed it with Emmys.

Crowning a successful first season for "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," DeGeneres accepted the best talk show trophy at Friday's Daytime Emmy Awards in New York.

The syndicated series also received three Emmys for technical achievement, making it this year's most-honored talk show.

Not bad for a woman who feared her career suffered permanent damage when she came out as a lesbian on "Ellen." All it took was a family-friendly hit movie ("Finding Nemo"), an HBO special and the daytime show to give DeGeneres back what she wanted - humor without agenda.

"I'm a comedian. I want to make people laugh," she said in a recent interview. "Somehow, I was viewed as political when I just want to be a comedian."

With her determinedly lighthearted show, DeGeneres is getting her wish. It's one of the handful of new daytime talk shows to score with audiences in the past decade.

Since fall 1995, television executives have launched 38 Monday-through-Friday talk shows in daytime, said Jim Paratore, president of Warner Bros. Telepictures Productions, which is producing DeGeneres' show.

Only "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" and "Dr. Phil" were hits, Paratore said. Now he figures "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" can be added to the list.

It launched a year ago in TV markets covering 90 percent of the country, including NBC owned-and-operated stations, and wraps its first season Friday, although a few unaired shows will be scattered among the summer reruns.

Its total audience ratings are below that of blockbusters like top-rated Oprah Winfrey's talk show, but it draws a hefty slice of advertiser-coveted viewers.

"It's all about the demos," said Paratore, using industry slang referring to the show's largely 25-to-54-year-old demographic.

In negotiating the contract with a Cleveland station, for example, Paratore confidently predicted that 90 percent of viewers would be in that group. "You're out of your mind," the station executive replied.

But the numbers bore him out, Paratore said.

"The audience it reaches is the primo, upscale, soccer-mom target audience," he said, adding the show is a must-buy for many advertisers.

When the show begins its second season Sept. 6, there will be clear signs of its popularity: It will be upgraded in 38 of the top 100 markets, getting better time slots or airing on a network affiliate instead of an independent station.

Tom Selleck, who co-starred with DeGeneres in 1999's "The Love Letter" and was set to appear on her show Thursday, finds her success deserved. "She's a sweet person. You see the heart and soul of her," he said.

DeGeneres is enjoying the ride - a far tamer one than her last TV adventure.

In 1997, she and her sitcom character came out as lesbian on "Ellen." Before "Will & Grace," before "Queer as Folk," before "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," it fell to DeGeneres to serve as the TV focus for the issues of gay visibility and acceptability.

The sitcom lasted just one season more after a drop in ratings, and DeGeneres found her career in a slump. She tried resurrecting it with another sitcom, "The Ellen Show" in 2001, but it was short-lived.

Then came her endearing voice performance in 2003's "Finding Nemo," as a forgetful fish named Dory, and an HBO standup special in which she pointedly avoided politics in favor of the whimsical observational humor that has marked her career.

But when Telepictures set out to sell her talk show, it found reluctance among some station owners and managers. "We knew there was baggage," Paratore said, and concerns over controversy had to be addressed.

"In daytime, the audience doesn't want to be preached at by anybody. They don't want Oprah preaching spirituality or Rosie preaching politics or Ellen preaching lifestyle," he said.

The station executives "needed to be shown that people would give me another chance," DeGeneres said. The message she delivered: "You don't know me, you know a perception of me" based on news reports.

She's grateful viewers have responded to her show, which combines the usual celebrity interviews with a monologue, comic bits and much interaction with her studio and at-home audience.

After DeGeneres displayed a picture of her overweight cat, "suddenly people sent in pictures of their fat cats," she said.

She continues on in her meandering, charmingly Ellenesque fashion: "Some of them we don't even show because I feel like, 'Oh, my God, this animal's going to blow up in a second."'

Despite the career rough patch, she "wouldn't change one single thing that happened," DeGeneres said.

"I feel like the success is even sweeter. I'm so grateful I have another chance. I can relax, and not have any secrets."