How Adweek Media Visionary Ellen DeGeneres Built a Media Empire

Authenticity and kindness are its cornerstones

Ellen DeGeneres has earned 59 Daytime Emmy Awards, a Primetime Emmy Award, 20 People’s Choice Awards and the 2016 Presidential Medal of Freedom. Doug Inglish/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

When you talk to Ellen DeGeneres, what you see is what you get.

Off stage, away from the cameras, Adweek’s Media Visionary is as genuine and thoughtful as the likable persona she’s cultivated during her long, remarkable career as an entertainer, writer, producer, and LGBTQ and animal activist.

Doug Inglish/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Her signature credo is “Be kind to one another” and she has been true to it, despite weathering a devastating backlash right at the height of her initial fame. Following her steady rise as a comedian, DeGeneres headlined HBO stand-up comedy specials, guested on TV shows and, in 1994, landed her eponymous sitcom on ABC. Then, three years later, she made history in 1997 with the simple words, “Yep, I’m Gay” on Time’s cover and shortly thereafter became the first leading character in prime time to come out. America was a very different place 20-plus years ago than it is now, and some tough years followed for DeGeneres, to put it mildly.

But she persisted. She landed a daytime talker, now with a rabid following and in its 16th season, hosted the Emmys and Oscars (and blew up Twitter with her star-studded selfie) and was a judge on American Idol, and along the way scooped up 59 Daytime Emmy Awards, a Primetime Emmy Award, 20 People’s Choice Awards and the 2016 Presidential Medal of Freedom, among many other accolades. Somehow, DeGeneres finds time to produce several TV shows via her A Very Good Production company, including NBC’s Ellen’s Game of Games, Little Big Shots and ABC’s Splitting Up Together.

DeGeneres in recent years has made the successful transition to the third screen, using social media as yet another platform to entertain and inspire, but also to tackle controversial issues, from school shootings to #MeToo moments, most recently taking to Twitter in support of Christine Blasey Ford during Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate hearings.

With her tens of millions of followers, DeGeneres in 2014 launched Ellen Digital Ventures, and its hub ellentube became a digital destination for curated show clips and user-generated content submitted by fans. Two years later, DeGeneres teamed up with Warner Bros. Television Group to launch the Ellen Digital Network, which rolled up all her digital assets, including ellentube, her  YouTube channel and digital game Heads Up!, along with original programming, on an ad-supported cross-channel platform. EDN now boasts more than 1 billion monthly views and counts a combined 188 million social followers. Of course, with an engaged audience like that, marketers have become fans, too. DeGeneres has her own lifestyle brand, ED, and last month she struck a deal with Walmart to create EV1, a women’s clothing line that’s styled with optimism and inclusion in mind.

DeGeneres’ Netflix stand-up special in December is her first in over a decade.
Michael Rozman/ Warner Bros.

If that weren’t enough, DeGeneres is going back to her comic roots with Relatable, a Netflix stand-up special in December—her first in over a decade. On DeGeneres’ 60th birthday, her wife, actress Portia de Rossi, surprised the big animal advocate with The Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund in Rwanda as well as the Ellen DeGeneres Wildlife Fund to protect endangered species.

Here, despite juggling her daytime show, her TV and digital projects, conservation efforts and caring for her three dogs and three cats (all rescues), DeGeneres in September took time out to reflect on her evolution from stand-up comic to media icon. 

Adweek: You say on Twitter that your “tweets are real.” How important is being real to who you are as a brand, as an entertainer? What’s your appeal?
Ellen DeGeneres: Just being honest. What you see with me is I don’t hide my feelings. If I’m emotional or sad about something, I cry, and if I am mad about something, I’m mad. Just because I happen to be funny, does it mean I don’t have all of the other emotions that a human being has? I get asked that all the time—what do you think it is about you? I don’t think about it. I don’t ask, why do people pick me? First of all, it’s kind of an insult, like, why do you think people like you?

I actually would take it as a compliment.
I know it is, but it’s still kind of weird. I think people ask that because there were the times people not only didn’t like me, but hated me. I came back from, not everybody, but a lot of people who just overnight decided that they didn’t like me anymore. So I think that’s the question: How did I come back?

When you came out on the cover of Time in 1997 and your character on The Ellen Show soon after, were you surprised by all the blowback?

DeGeneres came out on the cover of Time in 1997.

I knew there would be people that didn’t like it, but I didn’t realize my show would be canceled. I just thought, “It’s going to be interesting.”

We’re living in a time now, the more controversial something is, the more popular it is. I just didn’t happen to have a show on at that time. The last season we did was a great season, and unfortunately nobody saw it because it was not advertised. It was purposely not advertised by ABC and Disney because they just wanted to hold their hands up to advertisers and say we’re not promoting it, we’re not doing this. And I get it. It’s a business, and I understand that. And so everybody had their reasons, and unfortunately I was just blindsided.

It did make a difference to many people who were coming out.
I hear that a lot—that it started a conversation. It’s definitely something I know helped a lot of people, and I was hoping it would help more people. Right after I came out, Matthew Shepard was killed, and it just devastated me. I just thought, “This is going to make a difference.” The ignorance of me to think that I would make that much of a difference … It just broke my heart.

Just imagine if social media existed back then. How do you handle it now?
I try not to read. But I have to pay attention just a little bit, because I want feedback. When you’re getting slammed by someone on your Twitter page or Instagram, you’re like, why are you following me if you hate me? And then I realized, well, they just do it because there’s so much anger in them. I don’t understand it. I don’t take it personally.

When I came out, I had death threats and there was a bomb threat, but they misjudged the time of the taping. We had already finished, and thank God.  

I’m flattered and honored by the [Media Visionary Award] you’ve given me, but I just don’t like to pay attention to it really because I’d have to pay attention to the criticism as well. All I want to do is be the best person that I can be for me in my life, and that’s all I try to do. If it impacts people in a positive way, then I’m thrilled. I was somebody that, yes, turned into a brand, but the brand is positivity, the brand is love, which is why I have love on everything that I make. And it’s the time in our life when we need it more than ever. So this platform is just one way to get it out there. The talk show is just a platform, social media is just a platform for me to say my real tweets. I want everything to be authentic, and I think that’s what people respond to.

You’ve defended actress Olivia Munn’s #MeToo moment, you’ve had the Parkland activist students on the show and you defended Oprah from President Trump. You’re not afraid to tackle controversial subjects.
No. I’m not. I hope people understand it’s not even a political thing. It’s just about what kind of character the person has. I demand if somebody is stepping over the line [for them to be] a decent, honest human being.

DeGeneres isn’t afraid to tackle controversial subjects on her show.

Why do you think Trump has left you alone?
I don’t know why. I don’t go after him, but if he does something that is kind of like “What are you talking about?,” I’m going to say something. It’s not even OK anymore or fun anymore to do a Trump joke. I don’t think we need to give it any more attention. Let him do what he does, and let’s try to push light into the world.

So what happens when you’re grumpy and you have to go on the show. How do you shake it?
I’m not usually in a bad mood. I get sad about stuff—what’s going on with the flooding [in North Carolina] right now, people that have lost everything. It breaks my heart. I could cry right now talking about it. And the same thing with fires and the animals in the fires. I won’t say I struggle with depression, but I get what’s going on with the world. I feel all of the pain that I am seeing.

When I step through those doors, these people are so happy to be there. I feel that energy, and I get their energy, and then I have to match it because that’s what my job is. A woman came up to me last Saturday in a restaurant. She was an older woman, and she saw me and her eyes got so wide and she put her hand on my arm and she just started crying. She said, “You have to know what you do for people. My husband died, and you got me through it. You have to keep doing what you’re doing.” I look at that audience—each one of these people has a story. That’s the one hour a day that I’m not thinking about my feelings. I’m only thinking about how can I fulfill this hour of what they had hoped for. I don’t think about myself. I don’t think about the problems of the world. I want them to not think about it. I want this to be an escape for everybody.

What was the impetus for the Ellen Digital Network?
It’s just an extension of the show. And the reality is a lot of people watch my show through social media because it’s a daytime show and my audience is pretty upscale and a lot of them are working. I just thought there’s a whole young generation that is watching TV and [we] should [create a platform] for our fans to give us content. They send us great stuff, and then we created these shows [like] Kalen Allen and Kristen Bell. And all the shows are doing well. We’re trying to grow it even bigger. We have 20 shows in the works going digital. It’s fun. They can be five minutes long, they can be 20, they can be anything.

Momsplaining with Kristen Bell is part of the Ellen Digital Network.

Do you think you’d ever want to appear in another comedy series, or are your acting days over?
I don’t know. I’m not sure what I want to do. I mean, my life has kind of just found a path. I didn’t really have any idea I would even have another opportunity to have a career after I came out, but then to say this is my 16th season is crazy. So I don’t know. I’m open to whatever kind of shows up and feels right to me.

Premiering Dec. 18 on Netflix will be Relatable, your first stand-up special in some time. Was it a little scary going back on tour?
I did it because I wanted to scare myself. That’s why I hosted the Oscars, and even though the first time I said I wasn’t going to do it again, I did it again because I wanted to scare myself. The [talk] show is fun, but it’s definitely not as challenging, because it’s something that’s really become so comfortable. I just wanted to do something that was going to challenge me creatively. I hadn’t done stand-up in 15 years at all—like, zero—and it’s a whole different thing. The jokes that I tell in my monologues are jokes, but what I’m doing onstage feels a little more personal. It was fun, and it was scary and it was everything that I wanted it to be. But it came back so easily to me. It was as if I had taken a week off.

How next would you want to scare yourself?
Running around with Bear Grylls maybe?! I don’t know. Now I’m happy being a little calmer. I don’t need to scare myself anymore. And now I’m building this campus in Rwanda, and so my energy is going to go into that and trying to help save the endangered species that are all over the world. I’m comfortable right now, and I don’t mind it.

Check out all of this year’s Hot List honorees:

This story first appeared in the October 15, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.
@lgranatstein Lisa Granatstein is the editor, svp, programming at Adweek.