Ellen DeGeneres is ending her talk show, but was she really cancelled?

When Ellen DeGeneres announced on Wednesday that next year’s season would be the last for her eponymous talk show, it was hailed by some as the latest instance of a wayward celebrity being cancelled by public outrage.

One Twitter user opted for the pithy “Ellen Degenerate”, as if that said it all. Another, speaking for many who felt betrayed by revelations last year that behind the “be kind” slogan of the show lay a toxic workplace, opted for a more Socratic approach. “Everyone: ‘Hey #ellen can you make your staff less racist and take accountability for a toxic environment?’#EllenDeGeneres: ‘I quit’.”

The Ellen DeGeneres Show faced widespread scrutiny about workplace culture in 2020.Credit:AP

The truth is more complex. While public outrage may have played some part in her decision to call time on the daytime chat show after 19 seasons and more than 3000 episodes, it is likely that money, not morality, really called the shots here.

The ratings for all broadcast television in the US are in decline, and last October it was reported that daytime chat shows had shed an average 19 per cent of their audience compared to a year earlier. But DeGeneres had suffered worse, with the September premiere of the latest season – on which she apologised and vowed to “take responsibility for what happens at my show” – down 37 per cent compared to a year earlier.

In March, Nielsen ratings figures showed Ellen had dropped even further, its audience shedding 1.1 million viewers (down from 2.6 million to 1.5 million per day). Its key demographic – women under 54 – were turning off too, with a decline of 38 per cent. The backlash may have exacerbated the decline but the truth is the numbers had been trending down for years, from a high in 2014-15 of almost 4 million per episode.

With wife Portia de Rossi in 2019Credit:Richard Rodriguez

In a 2018 profile for The New York Times, DeGeneres admitted she was looking to move on from the show, which was at that stage in its 16th season (ultimately, she agreed to do three more years, one less than the network had hoped for). The task of being the perpetually smiling, dancing, upbeat channeller of all that positive energy could be exhausting for a self-confessed depressive, and it left other creative impulses unfulfilled. “The talk show is me, but I’m also playing a character of a talk-show host,” she said. “There’s a tiny, tiny bit of difference.”

But according to some who worked on the show, the difference was in fact considerable. Last July Buzzfeed reported on claims by one current and 10 former employees, all speaking anonymously, they had experienced racism, ostracism, unreasonable demands and micro-management. There were also claims that employees were instructed not to talk to or make eye contact with DeGeneres.

“Most of the former employees blamed executive producers and other senior managers for the day-to-day toxicity,” Buzzfeed’s Krystie Lee Yandoli reported. “But one former employee said that, ultimately, it’s Ellen’s name on the show and ‘she really needs to take more responsibility’ for the workplace environment.”

Separately, Fox News reported the claim of a bodyguard assigned to work with DeGeneres when she hosted the Oscars in 2014 that she had been “very cold” and had not said “hi” or thanked him for his work.

Interaction with the live studio audience was a key element in the success of her show, and one that has been lacking in the past year.Credit:Dave Kotinsky

In many walks of life none of this would have amounted to a hill of beans. But in showbiz, where image is everything, and where the image you’re projecting is “be kind”, it mattered. A lot.

As the claims multiplied and the social media campaign against her intensified, 63-year-old DeGeneres, who claims she does not use social media, stayed silent (in part because the show was on hiatus for summer). “I wasn’t working, so I had no platform, and I didn’t want to address it on [Twitter],” she told The Hollywood Reporter this week. “I thought, ‘If I just don’t address it, it’s going to go away,’ because it was all so stupid.”

But it didn’t go away. And now, instead, Ellen is going away.

Cancelled or not, it’s the end of an era.

Email the author at [email protected], or follow him on Facebook at karlquinnjournalist and on Twitter @karlkwin

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