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‘Ellen’ Gets Ready to Open the Closet Door

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“Ellen” will film a long-anticipated episode next week in which the title character of the ABC comedy comes out as a lesbian--ending a six-month guessing game that has left many pondering whether such a turn represents a breakthrough or, at this point, much ado about nothing.

Production is expected to take place Friday on an episode that would air April 30, the first day of the May ratings sweeps. Ellen Morgan (played by series star Ellen DeGeneres) falls in love with another woman, then discloses her sexual orientation to her friends and therapist, played in a cameo by Oprah Winfrey.

In doing so, the series will become prime time’s first to feature an openly homosexual lead character.

As for the decision itself--said to have been approved at the highest levels of ABC’s parent, the Walt Disney Co.--the suspense surrounding it has taken on a life of its own that has all but overshadowed the story line’s cultural significance.

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Revealing Ellen’s sexual orientation follows numerous inside jokes throughout the season, such as the star quipping that she might be “left-handed” or “Lebanese.” There has been a corresponding evasiveness by ABC and “Ellen’s” production company, Walt Disney Television, as to whether such a plot would ever come to pass.

Yet network and studio insiders--who declined to talk on the record--insist they weren’t being indecisive or coy as to whether Ellen would come out. Rather, they maintain that initial reports became public at such an embryonic stage in the discussion last September that no one was certain how the issue would be resolved.

Officials were reluctant to take the series in such a direction without information outlining not only how the coming-out episode would be handled, but also where the program would go in subsequent episodes.

“Whatever interest this generates will be over in a week,” said one TV executive. “The real question is where the show goes after that.”

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ABC brass didn’t meet with DeGeneres and the producers to discuss specifics until December. ABC offered some notes, then waited to see a draft of the script, which network officials didn’t receive until last week.

Sources say ABC Entertainment President Jamie Tarses and Disney Television President David Neuman finally convened a few days ago to go over details and approve the teleplay.

Several misperceptions, meanwhile, linger about what took ABC so long to provide its blessing, as well as the potential ramifications. They include:

* Disney’s reluctance due to the company’s image. Actually, the studio has a lengthy track record of handling controversial material in the film arena, including “Priest” and “Kids,” both released through its Miramax division. Disney also has extended employee benefits to same-sex partners, a move that drew fire from some conservative groups, who called for a boycott of Disney theme parks.

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“Disney didn’t want to do this and have it be a bad script,” a studio source said of the delay. “Nobody wanted it to look like just another sweeps stunt.”

Sources say Disney Chairman Michael Eisner signed off early regarding the “Ellen” decision, leaving it to ABC executives to decide whether they were comfortable with the story line. The network’s response has been that it was open to the change of direction as long as the material justified it.

* “Ellen” is a hit show. Season to date, “Ellen” is averaging just under 14 million viewers each week--respectable, but by no means a major success. By way of comparison, NBC’s “Seinfeld” and “ER” attract more than twice that many people.

The show ranks 47th in total viewers out of 118 prime-time series broadcast this season on the four major networks and came up on the short end of a head-to-head battle with CBS’ “The Nanny” early this season. Ratings only improved after ABC moved the program to Wednesdays, following “The Drew Carey Show.”

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“It really is not a power show,” said Paul Schulman, who runs his own New York-based media-buying agency. “It’s more of a scavenger show that needs a hit in front of it.”

If ratings continue to dwindle, many have assumed that next year--the series’ fifth--could be its last. As the producer of “Ellen,” Disney can use one more year’s worth of episodes to reach the needed number for syndication. Rerun rights have already been sold to the Lifetime cable network, which is partly owned by Disney.

* This radically affects the status of gays in prime time. A recent issue of the gay and lesbian magazine the Advocate noted that there are already about two dozen gay or lesbian series regulars in prime time.

“Roseanne,” “Spin City,” “Friends,” “Melrose Place” and even “The Simpsons” (Mr. Burns’ closeted assistant, Waylon Smithers) are among the popular shows to currently feature regular or semiregular gay characters. The magazine also cites several TV movies with gay themes scheduled in the next few weeks, though most will air on cable channels.

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Still, Alan Klein, communications director of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), pointed out that supporting characters can periodically disappear, which doesn’t happen with a lead. “That’s a different ball of wax,” he said.

* Advertisers won’t support the show if Ellen comes out. In addition to heat from religious conservatives who object to what would be seen as validating the gay lifestyle, ABC will probably lose some advertisers but should be able to replace them with others less concerned about such controversy.

Moreover, because “Ellen” is a sitcom, it is unlikely to deal with the character’s sexuality in a graphic way, as the drama “thirtysomething” did in 1989 by showing two men sitting in bed together. That did prompt many advertisers to pull out, though a recent lesbian kiss on ABC’s “Relativity” generated considerably less resistance.

* Coming out will help or hurt ratings. When the initial report of the character “coming out” leaked and received widespread media coverage in September, the series premiere a few days later exhibited no appreciable benefits or harm.

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“The writing on the show has not been very good,” Schulman said. “If the writing stays as it is, all her coming out of the closet will mean is a blip on the meter.”

* The gay community is uniformly enthusiastic about Ellen coming out. ABC did draw criticism from groups such as GLAAD for failing to quickly approve the gay story line.

“Because this is a network first, I’m sure it promoted a lot of thought and a lot of discussion,” said GLAAD’s Klein, adding that despite disappointment in ABC’s foot-dragging, “When this does happen, you’ve got to applaud them.”

The gay community doesn’t speak with a single voice, however, and some view the drawn-out “Ellen” story as anticlimactic. At a panel last October on gays in Hollywood, Scott Thompson, a gay actor who plays a gay character on “The Larry Sanders Show,” said, “At this point, there’s no bravery in the act at all. She’s ruined it.”

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Though the show’s new direction promises to spur some controversy, a decision makes life easier for ABC’s scheduling department. Because executives there weren’t sure if or when Ellen was coming out, they felt constrained in moving the series before 9 p.m., when more children are apt to be watching.

Beginning Tuesday, “Ellen” will air at 8:30 p.m. after “Roseanne” (which, coincidentally, this week deals with the lead character’s mother being a lesbian), but the show will return to a later hour for the coming-out episodes.

DeGeneres became angry, in fact, when she learned of ABC’s initial plans to take the series off the air in March and April. Sources say the star subsequently negotiated a hefty raise, from $90,000 per episode to $125,000.

DeGeneres, who declined comment for this story, has seemed to enjoy milking the issue, including an art-imitates-life appearance on “The Larry Sanders Show” centering on whether she’d come out on that fictional program.

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At a Museum of Television & Radio event last fall, she said she hoped to develop her character in a way that would “make a lot of people proud.” DeGeneres, who hosted the Grammy Awards on Wednesday night, will present an award tonight to singer k.d. lang at an event sponsored by the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center.

DeGeneres’ movie debut, “Mr. Wrong,” didn’t fare well at the box office last year, but network sources remain convinced she is a television star--one who hasn’t always been well-served by her series, which has undergone frequent producer changes and at times seemed to lack direction.

In fact, insiders hope that coming out may give “Ellen” what the show has been lacking--namely, a sense of identity.


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