Roughly two months into the return of The Ellen DeGeneres Show, following reports of a toxic work environment that included sexual harassment, it’s losing advertisers, struggling to book A-list celebrities, and suffering a dip in ratings during what is usually the busiest time of year, sources with knowledge of the situation told BuzzFeed News.
A current employee told BuzzFeed News that the show and its digital content have fewer advertisers and sponsors compared to past years — a shift that took place over the summer that they don’t attribute to just the pandemic. Another source who declined to be named also confirmed the situation to BuzzFeed News. According to the employee, staffers aren’t able to produce as much new content as a result of less advertising money, so their projects are slowing down and they’re recycling old video clips from past seasons.
“We’re trying to be a content house, but we have no content,” the employee said.
In November 2019, the Ellen Show Instagram account featured 12 sponsored posts from eight different brands; in November 2020, the show's Instagram featured just six sponsored posts from two different brands: Hologic, a medical device company focusing on women's health, and Hyundai, which also sponsored this year's “12 Days of Giveaways.”
The month of December is usually one of The Ellen Show’s busiest and most successful times of the year because of the “12 Days of Giveaways” segments that run on 12 episodes, promoting brands whose products are gifted to audience members. This year, the show is specifically giving gifts to frontline workers, first responders, medical workers, and families impacted by COVID-19. But a current employee said that even though the show recently instituted a small in-studio audience again, this year’s gifts aren’t on par with what it usually delivers.
“In a typical year, ‘12 Days of Giveaways’ is huge. We’ve basically claimed Christmas on daytime TV. When you think of Christmas on TV, you think of The Ellen Show,” a current employee said. “Everyone wants to be in the audience. Everyone wants the gifts. And so we line up all these crazy sponsors, and people love it. But this year, our ‘12 Days’ is more condensed. We don’t have as many sponsors.”
The employee continued, “This feels like our make-it-or-break-it moment. This will be our biggest report card. If we pick up sponsors by the new year, then we’re cooking, we’ll be fine, and we’ll sell kindness in a bottle. But if we fail that report card, who knows.”
A source close to the show told BuzzFeed News that the current "12 Days of Giving" segments reflect “the environment that we’re in” given the pandemic.
“[Ellen’s] not giving away these amazing trips, which were sort of the hallmark of '12 Days' over the past few years, sending audiences to amazing places. There are travel restrictions and she’s giving gifts that are appropriate for the world right now,” the source said. “Maybe it looks and feels differently, but that's not a reflection on her or the business, but that’s directly impacted by the state of the world and the kind of show that’s being done now.”
The employee also said the show is struggling to book talent. Earlier in the season, the team was encouraged to pitch ideas to the talent-booking team in a videoconference because the show was having a difficult time securing its usual A-list celebrities.
“For the first time, everyone was starting to ask us, ‘If you have an idea, tell us because we will listen. If you have an idea for a celeb, even if they’re not A-list or famous, we’ll take anyone who will bring us numbers and eyeballs,’” the employee said. “That’s when they started to be real with us and essentially said, ‘Give us anything because we need help.’ Our old strategy doesn’t work anymore.”
Representatives for Warner Bros. declined to comment for this story. However, another source close to the show who preferred to remain anonymous told BuzzFeed News that “advertising revenue for daytime TV has been impacted across the board” and “everything to do with the business climate” can be attributed to the coronavirus pandemic. The source also pointed out that longtime advertisers like Shutterfly have returned to the show.
While regular guests like Justin Bieber, Diane Keaton, Jimmy Kimmel, and members of the Kardashian/Jenner family have recently appeared on Ellen, publicists who work in the entertainment industry told BuzzFeed News they aren’t booking as many of their clients on the daytime talk show. They also said some of their clients have specifically said they don’t want to appear on the show, even over videoconference. They also said they’re wary of booking their clients for the current season of Ellen because they don’t want them to be a part of “her comeback tour.”
“I wouldn’t set up anyone on her show right now to do anything that could possibly cause them more negative headlines,” one publicist told BuzzFeed News on condition of anonymity. “You have to tread so carefully with your clients and your clients’ reputations, so you don't want to put your client in any line of fire sympathizing with someone that any community or anyone would feel bad about. We’re not going to align anyone with Ellen.”
A prominent Hollywood publicist said they had already felt a shift in the show’s original reputation for being genuine prior to the news reports from this summer, saying that they felt “like it lost its authenticity a long time ago.”
“It felt very set up. It’s a place that’s very manufactured for Scooter Braun or for Kim Kardashian’s family to say whatever they wanted,” the publicist said. “It became something manufactured as opposed to something more authentic, which it used to be. Ellen started veering towards super Hollywood years ago as opposed to being who she is, and she lost her realness along the way.”
A source close to the show, though, told BuzzFeed News there’s been “no difficulty booking talent” on the show.
“The show is fully booked and a lot of those guests are exclusive to Ellen, and that’s even more remarkable because as you know, there are no movies opening, there are no concerts being had, there are no TV events or premieres,” the source said. “So the whole talk show circuit that these major celebrities do is not happening.”
Another Hollywood publicist said they simply don’t see the value in bringing talent to The Ellen Show when the ratings have been down, making it hard to justify their effort and energy, especially when there are other new and popular daytime options, such as those helmed by Kelly Clarkson and Drew Barrymore.
“The feedback we’ve been getting is that Ellen is no longer a first choice for talent,” one publicist said. “It’s not unique to one person. We’ve received feedback from other publicists as well as talent. Nobody likes feeling this emotional betrayal from someone who literally built a brand on niceness. Getting over that hump is a much bigger hurdle.”
In October, the tracking firm Nielsen reported that ratings for The Ellen DeGeneres Show have declined about 37% from last season; about 1.7 million average viewers tuned into Season 18's premiere week, compared to about 2.7 million people who watched that of Season 17 in September 2019. While ratings for syndicated talk shows are down by 19% on average, The Ellen Show’s drop is the largest.
A source close to the show said the initial ratings were reflective of an overall drop in live broadcast TV ratings, but that the preliminary numbers for the November sweeps are up over what they were in October. Nielsen ratings did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ requests for confirmation.
DeGeneres signed a deal in 2019 to continue hosting her daytime talk show through 2022, and executives have assured the public that she “isn’t going anywhere.”
Evan Nierman, founder and CEO of Red Banyan, a crisis management and public relations firm, told BuzzFeed News he thinks the show is feeling the impact of the news reports from months ago and that it has “made things a lot harder than they needed to be” because executives didn’t “take aggressive steps to address it or do a good job of communicating how they were going to remedy the situation” sooner.
“Ellen is a TV star, and it took literally months until we saw and heard from Ellen. That was a huge misstep on their part,” Nierman said.
The Ellen Show employee also said it was difficult communicating with advertisers in the time leading up to the host's first day back on the air, Sept. 21, when she addressed the allegations. This was a crucial time when many sponsors dropped off and employees couldn’t provide them with any helpful information; employees were told to wait for DeGeneres’s remarks to air. The Ellen Show Instagram account, which is usually active on a regular basis and includes sponsored posts, went dark from July 30 until Sept. 21, the first time DeGeneres had appeared on air since the allegations were initially reported.
“Ellen wanted to speak to her fans and her audience directly on the season premiere, so there would be no reason for anyone to speak before Ellen. That was the decision that was made,” a source close to the show said.
But even if she isn’t personally responsible for everything that goes on, Nierman thinks that at the end of the day, she “kind of is because that’s supposed to be what the role of a leader is.”
“It took months until she expressed real contrition and did it on camera, and that allowed the crisis to persist much longer than it needed to,” he added. “The secret weapon for Ellen was always Ellen, and they didn’t use it.”
At least 17 people were laid off from Ellen Digital Ventures in November, around the same time WarnerMedia initiated company-wide layoffs, which the show blamed on the pandemic.
Current and former employees say that ultimately, the cost of speaking out about their toxic behind-the-scenes environment with the intention of improving workplace conditions at The Ellen Show still impacts them more than it does the talk show host. Nierman also said that while the show might be experiencing difficulties now, DeGeneres herself will remain successful in the long run.
“In the end, she’s going to be okay,” Nierman said. “Did she damage her brand? Yes. Has the shine worn off a bit? And does it seem like Ellen isn’t exactly who we all thought she was on camera? Sure. But she will be just fine.”
Earlier this year, Forbes estimated that DeGeneres’s net worth is $370 million. She will continue to earn tens of millions of dollars per year as one of Hollywood’s highest-paid celebrities.
But according to employees, a dip in ratings, lost advertising dollars, and layoffs at Ellen Digital have them worried about the future of the show. One publicist agreed, emphasizing the importance of a show to keep pulling in advertisers.
“All of these shows are perpetuated by money. When the money dries up, the show dries up,” the publicist said. “It doesn’t matter how great you are. If you can’t get advertisers to buy in, that’s the final line.”