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The Evolution Of Ellen: A Talk Show Host Faces New Scrutiny


Let's talk now about talk show host and comedian Ellen DeGeneres, who has built her show around being welcoming. Have a listen. This is from her acceptance speech for Favorite Daytime TV Host at the People's Choice Awards.


ELLEN DEGENERES: I wanted to make the show a show for everyone; a show for old people and young people and men and women and Black and white and gay and straight and everybody.


KELLY: That was from 2014. And now DeGeneres is facing a challenge to that image because of news stories claiming her show is a toxic workplace. Well, here to talk about the allegations facing DeGeneres and the possible impact on her legacy is NPR TV critic Eric Deggans.

Hey there, Eric.


KELLY: Hi. Start with the allegations. What exactly is she being charged with?

DEGGANS: Sure. The biggest impact has come from two stories on BuzzFeed about the atmosphere behind the scenes at her daytime show, "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," which has been on the air since 2003. Now, these pieces had stories from mostly former employees who allege that they faced racism, sexual harassment and intimidation while working there. And several of the show's producers have denied the most serious allegations. Warner Brothers, the show's distributor, issued a statement saying it found deficiencies related to the show's day-to-day management. And DeGeneres put out an email to employees that was released later as a statement, where she apologized and said she was going to try to do better on day-to-day management. But both of these statements have drawn some skepticism from people who wonder if it's not their way of throwing the show's executive producers under the bus and salvaging DeGeneres' image.

KELLY: And that's the thing is that her whole image is built on being a nice person who encourages other people to be nice. Is that prompting the question here, is Ellen a phony?

DEGGANS: Yeah. I mean, it's a question that's important for her to answer. She has built this brand on kindness. She even has a subscription service called Be Kind, where you can sign up to get boxes filled with products that she's personally picked that will somehow be kind to the world or be kind to you. These stories seem to confirm these longstanding rumors that DeGeneres has a mean streak and isn't particularly nice to her employees or to guests who aren't big stars. And it goes beyond snarky rumors that she's rude or petty, feeding into this reckoning that seems to be happening now in Hollywood regarding toxic workplaces and television.

KELLY: Yeah. I mean, it's worth noting that this is not just Ellen DeGeneres' show that's facing this type of allegation.

DEGGANS: Yeah. CBS fired Peter Lenkov, who's the showrunner who once supervised reboots of "Hawaii Five-0," "MacGyver" and "Magnum P.I." after complaints of abusive conduct and creating a toxic workplace. And now DeGeneres' show faces some similar allegations. I think in Hollywood, there's this idea that to create a hit, you've got to have this workplace where people are constantly pushed to their limits and that the toxicity is inevitable. But I think more employees are rebelling against this, and they're speaking out to try and change it and maybe make Hollywood follow the same rules as the rest of corporate America.

KELLY: To circle us back to DeGeneres and the impact of this, potentially on her legacy, she was seen as a hero when she came out as a lesbian in real life and again on her sitcom "Ellen." We've actually got a little bit of sound from that episode. This was back in 1997 - different world. And she is accidentally speaking into a public address microphone.


DEGENERES: (As Ellen Morgan) Why do I have to be so ashamed? I mean, why can't I just be who I am? I'm 35 years old. I'm so afraid to tell people. I mean, I just - Susan, I'm gay.

KELLY: Eric, you were covering TV when this episode aired. It was this total landmark moment for television.

DEGGANS: It sure was. And DeGeneres endured a lot after that moment, too. Her show was canceled about a year after the episode aired. But then she created this talk show built on being kind and giving back. In a way, she kind of inherited the outlook and probably some of the fans from Oprah Winfrey's classic daytime TV talk show. So DeGeneres became a symbol for overcoming prejudice through the force of her talent and her niceness. She even got the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama. So now with these new allegations, she's gone from being a victim who beat the forces of intolerance to accusations she's become a victimizer who allowed intolerance. And that's kind of sad.

KELLY: NPR TV critic Eric Deggans.

Thank you, Eric.

DEGGANS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.
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