When hearing that a Rutgers University student flung himself off a bridge 2 1/2 years ago after he was outed on the Internet as gay, Ellen DeGeneres felt a familiar pain.
So she used the stage of her syndicated daytime talk show to deplore bullying, ticked off names of other gay teenagers who had committed suicide, then made an appeal to the scores of lonely kids who might be struggling with their identities: "Things will get easier, people's minds will change," she said, her voice breaking. Ever since, she has signed off each show with a simple plea to her audience: "Be kind to one another."
And though it wasn't premeditated, that tangible empathy has helped fuel DeGeneres' growing popularity on multiple platforms, almost as though she made compassion cool again on TV.
The comedian who incited a riot in culture when she came out as gay 16 years ago on her ABC sitcom, has experienced a surge in popularity that has surprised many. Most TV shows lose their edge after five to seven years, and audiences drift away. But "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," now in its 10th year, is drawing its biggest audience ever. Its ratings among the important daytime demographic of women ages 25 to 54 have climbed 13% compared to last season.
DeGeneres also boasts the most-watched TV celebrity channel on YouTube, where clips from her show have been watched 1.7 billion times. She has 17 million followers on Twitter and, at age 55, she is the face of CoverGirl's bestselling line of makeup.
Last week, Walt Disney Co.'s Pixar said it was planning a sequel to its blockbuster film, Finding Nemo," starring DeGeneres who will reprise the voice of the befuddled blue tang fish. The film will be called Finding Dory."
DeGeneres' increased popularity can be attributed to several factors, television watchers say, including a softening of cultural attitudes and a growing fatigue among viewers for the coarse slap-downs and boundary-pushing behavior that has become a staple of daytime TV and reality shows. The departure of Oprah Winfrey left a gap for emotional fare in daytime television that DeGeneres' show has begun to fill.
The Internet too has become a potent tool to engage younger audiences, who delight in DeGeneres' goofball humor, her "oh, my goodness" charm and her message that it is OK to be yourself. People like DeGeneres because she's nice.
"Ellen is an antidote for the times," said Hilary Estey McLoughlin, president of Telepictures Productions, which produces the talk show. "She focuses on being kind to others in a bully culture."
DeGeneres' rise has helped modify Hollywood's perception of a leading lady, inspiring a wave of characters that are both offbeat and nice. On NBC's Parks and Recreation," Amy Poehler plays a do-gooder city official. On CBS' "Mike & Molly," Melissa McCarthy is a sweet and tubby fourth-grade teacher. On ABC's The Middle," the klutzy teenager Sue brims with wide-eyed optimism.
"The Ellen DeGeneres Show" almost didn't make it to the air. A decade ago, Warner Bros. struggled to license the show to TV station groups around the country. Station chiefs worried that DeGeneres' humor would be "too dirty" for the middle-aged homemakers who watch daytime TV, Warner executives recalled. Producers sent DeGeneres to do her stand-up routine for station executives to demonstrate that her comedy was tame.
"I don't know what they thought," DeGeneres said. "That I would stand in front of a rainbow flag and play a heavy rotation of Melissa Etheridge, Indio Girls and k.d. lang?"
I don't know what they thought … That I would stand in front of a rainbow flag and play a heavy rotation of Melissa Etheridge, Indio Girls and k.d. lang?
— Ellen DeGeneres
Her talk show's audience has grown to 3.5 million viewers a day, including those watching digital video recorded playbacks, up from just more than 2 million in its inaugural season. "Judge Judy" and "Dr. Phil" continue to attract more viewers in daytime, but this season DeGeneres' show edged into a first-place tie with "Dr. Phil" in the preferred audience demographic.
DeGeneres' ratings also are up 10% among the more fickle crowd of women ages 18 to 34. At a time when broadcast networks are starved for viewers in prime time, daytime "comfort food" programming has experienced a ratings uptick this year.
DeGeneres has strongly outperformed a string of daytime challengers who have tried and failed to replace the longtime queen of television, Winfrey — CNN's Anderson Cooper, Survivor" host Jeff Probst and former CBS News anchor Katie Couric.
The feeling in the room
Throngs of women crowd outside the Warner Bros. studio lot in Burbank, gathering more than four hours before production begins. Inside, music pulsates through the cavernous soundstage. Studio audience members show off their dance moves en masse, some swiveling their hips, others punching the air.
By the time DeGeneres takes the stage, the audience seems ready to explode. The cheers grow even louder in the opening minutes of the show as DeGeneres breaks out her signature dance moves or boogies through the aisles. At a recent taping, her wife of four years, actress Portia de Rossi, stood just off camera with the show producers, applauding enthusiastically with other fans.
"Ellen is current with music and the latest stars, and that keeps me in touch," Caroline Keenan of Palm Springs, who describes herself as "middle-aged," said after attending the taping. "I love her sense of fun."
DeGeneres' appeal spans generations. The Internet has given her global reach.
Two weeks ago, more than 3,000 fans braved 90-degree heat as they jammed an outdoor park in Sydney, Australia, to welcome DeGeneres on her first visit to the continent. She was accompanied by De Rossi and her 82-year-old mother, Betty DeGeneres, who was an outspoken advocate of her daughter during the turbulent years.
Media reports said that one emotional fan lobbied DeGeneres and De Rossi to adopt her. "We were just saying we should adopt someone," DeGeneres replied. "It's so easy for us."
DeGeneres and De Rossi haven't adopted children, although the pair is celebrated in animal rescue circles for urging pet adoptions. DeGeneres co-owns a natural pet food company, Halo.
Her devoted audience and positive message have made the former stand-up comic from Louisiana a magnet for major marketers, including Procter & Gamble, which uses DeGeneres to promote the bestselling CoverGirl/Olay line of "simply ageless" makeup. American Express and American Airlines are sponsors, as is JCPenney, which last year made DeGeneres its spokeswoman.
DeGeneres' show was on track to surpass $100 million in advertising revenue in 2012 — more than double "Dr. Phil's" haul, according to Kantar Media. Last month, NBC and other television stations re-upped their deals with Warner Bros. to extend production of DeGeneres' show through 2017.
DeGeneres' star burns just as brightly in digital media — ignited by her younger fans. Her YouTube channel has generated more than three times the traffic of the second-most-popular TV comedian, ABC's Jimmy Kimmel.
The comedian and her producers initially entered the space with low expectations.
"I just started texting two years ago," DeGeneres acknowledged. She relies on her staff to help her navigate her iPhone. One of her producers noted that until recently DeGeneres wrote her material by hand.
"Social media started out as a joke," said Ed Glavin, an executive producer on the show. "We joined Facebook for comedy purposes, and Ellen said: 'I want a million friends.'"
"We said, 'Oh, Lord, how are we going to get to a million friends?'" added Mary Connelly, another executive producer. DeGeneres' Facebook page now has generated 9.5 million "likes."
"Then we joined Twitter, and Ellen said, 'I want a million followers,'" Connelly said. "And we said: 'We need to be realistic, Ellen.' Now she has 17 million followers."
Social media started out as a joke. We joined Facebook for comedy purposes, and Ellen said: 'I want a million friends.'
— Ed Glavin, executive producer on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show"
Andy Lassner, the third executive producer, added: "She's found all these ways to reach her viewers because she has this connection with them."
Twitter has become a promotional tool, and DeGeneres and her producers have mined YouTube and Facebook for talent. Their discovery on YouTube of two cherubic British cousins, Sophia Grace, then 8, and Rosie, then 5, turned into an Internet sensation and ratings bonanza. The girls' appearances, along with the wildly popular boy band One Direction, sharpened DeGeneres' credentials as an arbiter of cool among the younger set.
"Ellen is really the only daytime show I watch," said Rachel Waxman, 16, of Manhattan Beach. Waxman doesn't watch the program when it airs at 4 p.m. on KNBC-TV Channel 4 because she's busy with sports or homework. Instead, she visits DeGeneres' YouTube page at night to view clips of the show and watches recorded episodes on weekends. "She's really cool, and she's so incredibly real," Waxman said. "You feel good after watching her show."
A message that resonates
Feeling good, and feeling good about feeling good, are keys to the DeGeneres brand.
"Ellen's message of being yourself and being accepted for who you are really resonates with younger viewers," said Melanie Shreffler, an analyst with the marketing research group Smarty Pants. She said there is no stigma for gay people among younger viewers, another reason DeGeneres has become a role model. "She's willing to be offbeat and be a little dorky on camera. Her humor works because she is safe enough and just out-there enough."
DeGeneres' compassion, experts said, is a major part of her appeal. Ratings increased after the show began seeking people to help in the heartwarming "make a difference" segments that often provoke tears.
Recently, DeGeneres' advertisers donated $20,000 to pay down a fan's student loans, and the show flew a 7-year-old Idaho boy awaiting a heart transplant to Los Angeles so he could go to Disneyland.
"She signs off each show by saying be kind to others and that is really refreshing in media today," said Waxman, the Manhattan Beach teenager.
DeGeneres said her experiences "added another layer of compassion to my humor." She was not prepared for the ridicule that followed her 1997 announcement that she was gay or ABC's cancellation of "Ellen" the following year.
"I felt like I was the exact same person, so I didn't understand how that bit of information on a sitcom caused such a big reaction," she said. "I had become the punch line. I had become the target of people's jokes, and it really hurt. I didn't want anyone else to feel that way."
The woman who staked her career on defying the norm now is in the fore of the mainstream.
Forbes calculated that she earned $55 million last year. A year ago, DeGeneres and De Rossi bought a $12-million beachfront home in Malibu previously owned by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Last fall she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
And a survey of more than 2,100 people by the Harris Poll determined she was America's favorite TV celebrity for 2012. "Ellen also tied with [Fox News Channe's] Bill O'Reilly as favorite TV personality among Republicans," said Regina Corso, a Harris Poll senior vice president. "That surprised us. We had to go back and double-check the data."
The star herself seemed a bit surprised too. "Culture changes all the time, so I try not to analyze it too much," DeGeneres said. "My hope for the show is that it has nothing to do with anything other than making people feel good, that it would be a safe place where no one gets hurt."