February 1998 – After enjoying a hype-induced popularity surge, the Disney/ABC sitcom Ellen, which introduced America to the lesbian subculture in its infamous “coming out” episode last spring, has now receded to a point below its former level of viewership.
Prior to the hoopla which preceded the April 30 show, Ellen averaged 13.7 million viewers a week. The show’s rankings had also been mediocre. In its maiden season (’93-’94), the Ellen DeGeneres sitcom jumped to fifth place among prime time shows, and ended in a respectable 13th. By the end of the second season, however, it had plummeted to 39th place, sinking further to 44th at the close of the third season.
In the fall of 1996, Ellen began teasing viewers with the possibility that the Ellen Morgan character would declare herself a lesbian sometime during the season. But in February 1997, even while the curiosity factor was being milked by Disney/ABC, Ellen was mired in 47th place.
All that changed when Ellen Morgan declared her lesbian sexual orientation in the coming out extravaganza – not surprisingly on the first day of the May sweeps. To add to the hype, the show was preceded in the days before April 30 by DeGeneres declaring herself to be homosexual in real life on a Time magazine cover, on ABC Primetime Live and on Oprah. Some 40 million people watched at least part of the hour-long episode, with 36 million sticking it out to view the entire show. Ellen’s national Nielsen household rating for the episode was 144% higher than its season-to-date average.
With the media frenzy manufacturing viewer curiosity, the sheer numbers of viewers for the April 30 show and its two follow-up episodes pulled the sitcom out of the quagmire into respectability – Ellen finished the ’96-’97 season ranked 30th, with a viewership of 15.2 million.
The now out-and-proud lesbian sitcom remained a media plaything over the summer, with questions being raised about how Ellen Morgan might explore her newly-discovered sexual orientation. With the curiosity factor for the current season still very strong, Ellen’s initial firstrun rankings kept the show in the top 30 into October.
But since the October 29 episode, with the homosexual theme dominating storylines, the Disney/ABC sitcom has once again dropped into mediocrity. Having fallen out of the top 30 shows every week except one, Ellen’s weekly rank has averaged 35th place, even excluding the weeks when the network ran an Ellen repeat episode. And the show’s viewership has fallen below the level of last season. TV industry analysts are now using words like “tiring” and “slack[ing] off” to describe the sitcom’s drawing power.
However, TV critics have rushed to be supportive of Ellen. Calling it “groundbreaking” and “ courageous,” entertainment critic Matt Roush of USA Today ranked the show as the year’s best. Entertainment Weekly chose DeGeneres as their Entertainer of the Year for making “cultural history” and for becoming “a poster girl…for honesty.” And calling the actress “a pop culture pioneer,” TV Guide placed the actress in third place on its list of The Best of '97 – the magazine's "salute to the top 10 performers" of the year.
Local ad revenues hurt
If the entertainment industry could not stop adoring Ellen DeGeneres, and if Disney/ABC seemed content with the singularly homosexual themes of Ellen, there were problems that clouded the show’s sunny day.
At Disney/ABC’s affiliate board meeting in December, station executives complained about the blatantly pro-gay themes on the sitcom, according to an article in Hollywood Reporter. Affiliate heads said the show’s direction has made it difficult for them to attract local advertisers, and, in fact, the network has been forced to “stack” national ads to offset the loss of local ad revenue. One attendee at the meeting told the Hollywood Reporter that people said they were not going to watch the ABC network at all – just because of Ellen.
ABC executives told station heads that they did not know that Ellen DeGeneres would push the same-sex affection and pro-gay themes so far in such a short time, describing the situation as “an ongoing battle” with DeGeneres. Affiliates asked that Ellen’s homosexual themes be toned down, the article said.
Whether or not that happens, it has become clear that Ellen’s coming out episode promoted a lifestyle that most people find immoral. In the end, the episode failed to revive the show itself, which was back in the basement where it started before it left the closet.