YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

A Closet Door Opens and 36 Million Watch


"Ellen" came out of the closet and packed much of America into the living room, as Wednesday's one-hour episode rode a staggering publicity wave to a national audience of more than 36 million people.

Those results exceeded even the most optimistic estimates as to the program's performance, besting viewing levels for television's most-watched program, "Seinfeld," which is seen by 30.6 million viewers in an average week.

Viewing better than doubled the average "Ellen" audience this season (13.7 million), delivering the show's highest rating ever and the biggest for any ABC entertainment program in more than three years.

The real test will be what percentage of that audience returns for the season's two remaining telecasts, in which the character deals with breaking the news to her parents and then to her boss.

"Ellen" has aired in three different time periods this season. For the next two programs, it will follow "The Drew Carey Show"--where it has done best--at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday.

ABC Entertainment President Jamie Tarses said in a statement Thursday that the network is "extremely pleased" by the ratings, adding that it's "even more satisfying . . . knowing that American viewers embraced the show's creativity."

Tune-in for "Ellen" increased TV viewing in its time period overall, and the program exceeded the rating for all competing network programs combined.

An interview with star Ellen DeGeneres' parents also boosted viewing of "PrimeTime Live" following the episode, and DeGeneres' appearance Wednesday with her girlfriend, actress Anne Heche, on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" spiked ratings for that program. (Winfrey guest-starred on "Ellen" as the character's therapist.)

"Ellen's" numbers are more impressive in the context of ABC's current prime-time woes. The network has suffered a major decline in viewing, with even the Stephen King miniseries "The Shining" producing disappointing results its first two nights.


ABC's big Wednesday results have lifted the network back into contention one week into the May rating sweeps--a period of particular importance to affiliates, which use those results to negotiate advertising rates. The network also used the episode extensively to promote upcoming programs during the survey period.

Roughly half the advertising time in the episode was purchased by film companies touting summer releases, including Time Warner (which owns Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema, as well as HBO), Universal, 20th Century Fox, Columbia and Paramount. Movie studios were among the few companies willing to support "NYPD Blue" when that show premiered amid controversy in 1993.

The list of advertisers did not include the Walt Disney Co., ABC's corporate parent. Disney also produces "Ellen" through its Touchstone Television unit.

The Gap, Calvin Klein, Volkswagen and Bayer were also among the sponsors represented. Media buyers actually got a bargain by paying an estimated $335,000 per commercial, less than the $500,000 or more that "Seinfeld" and "ER" command.

The Rev. Jerry Falwell--an outspoken critic of the plot line who referred to the program's star as "Ellen DeGenerate"--said in a statement: "Given that a majority of the commercial time was used for promotion of movies and upcoming ABC programs, it appears that corporate America was indeed not fully sponsoring the episode, but that the entertainment industry was supporting itself."

Falwell also predicted ratings for future episodes "will return to their original mediocre levels. Further, I am hopeful corporate America, [Disney Chairman] Michael Eisner and television executives will have learned something from this attempt to impose an immoral lifestyle upon America's families and children."

Tim Wildmon, vice president of the Rev. Donald Wildmon's Tupelo, Miss.-based American Family Assn., said his father's organization (which has lobbied against "NYPD Blue" and called for a boycott of Disney) will list the advertisers in its newsletter and discuss the subject on its network of radio stations.

"Obviously, the producers of this program wanted to promote the idea that homosexuality and lesbianism is normal, acceptable and should be condoned . . . even embraced by the American public," Wildmon said.

"This was a cause. The producers wrapped their social message in humor. People's guards are down when they're laughing." Asked if he felt the episode was harmful to children, Wildmon said he believes the producers are "recruiting for homosexuality."


Breaking down the audience demographically, the lion's share of viewers fell in the 18-34 and 18-49 age brackets that sponsors use to determine ad rates. Considerably smaller percentages of teens and children tuned in.

Los Angeles Times Articles