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ABC Pulls 'Ellen' Amid Low Ratings, Battle Over Theme

April 24, 1998|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In an anticipated move that has nevertheless disappointed some gay-rights activists, ABC has canceled "Ellen"--the program that became a national bellwether for public acceptance of homosexuals as prime-time television's first series featuring an openly gay lead character.

Producers of the show and its star, Ellen DeGeneres, learned of the decision late Wednesday. An ABC spokesman confirmed that the program would not return for a sixth season but declined further comment.

"We all knew it was coming," said Executive Producer Tim Doyle. "I just thought the timing was weird, because they had always told us they wouldn't make a decision until the schedule [for next season] was set in May."

"Ellen's" "coming out" spurred widespread public debate when it was broadcast a year ago, while leading to renewed charges that the entertainment industry doesn't reflect traditional values.

The Southern Baptist Convention, in fact, cited the program and the "gay-friendly" policies of Walt Disney Co.--which both produces "Ellen" and owns ABC--in urging members to boycott the company last June.

Despite the controversy surrounding "Ellen," Disney and ABC officials have consistently stressed that the comedy series' future hinged on its ratings, not political considerations.

Fueled by vast media coverage and DeGeneres' revelation of her own homosexuality, more than 36 million people tuned in the episode in which her character came out as a lesbian, making it one of the most-watched television programs of the season. However, the ratings quickly subsided and continued to diminish throughout the current year, which led to the show being pulled from the schedule in March.

As a result, few industry observers expected the program to be renewed, though national organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign and the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation continued to lobby on its behalf.

While saying she understood ABC's decision, GLAAD Executive Director Joan M. Garry said the series "made history and changed hearts and minds. We really wanted to see that work continue." In October, Vice President Al Gore praised Hollywood and the series, which he said had prompted Americans to "look at sexual orientation in a new light."

Garry added that she felt "Ellen" would ease the way for future depictions of gay and lesbian characters on television. A handful of new shows featuring prominent roles for gay characters are being considered for next season.

ABC may have acted now so the network can promote a one-hour episode scheduled to be broadcast May 13 as a "series finale," seeking to hype the ratings. The network previously indefinitely postponed plans to air two additional episodes, which was taken as another sign that "Ellen's" renewal prospects were dimming.

Executive Producer Doyle, however, maintained that those episodes were "purposely being withheld because of the heavy gay content," including a kiss between DeGeneres' character and her lover. Some advertisers had pulled out of the show before because of concerns about such content.

DeGeneres could not be reached for comment Thursday but has been sharply critical of ABC in the past, saying in March that the network "wanted me to go back in the closet. The writers and I fought every single episode to do what we did."

Network officials have voiced enthusiasm regarding the show's quality but also conceded that declining ratings may have been in part because of some viewers' discomfort over the show's subject matter.

This season, "Ellen" ranks 45th among prime-time series, down from last season, when it finished at No. 30. This calendar year it has averaged fewer than 11 million viewers, losing more than a third of the audience left over from "The Drew Carey Show," the popular comedy it follows. Normally, a television program dropping more than 20% from the preceding program risks cancellation.

Some executives at ABC-affiliated stations have expressed misgivings as well, feeling betrayed by the network, which had indicated the series would take "baby steps" in exploring the character's sexuality. The ABC station in Birmingham, Ala., initially balked at airing the coming-out episode, saying the show would offend local community standards.

Conservative groups such as the Tupelo, Miss.-based American Family Assn. also sought to pressure ABC into pulling the show, contending that "Ellen" championed "blatantly pro-homosexual themes."

Despite such complaints, the program has won ample critical praise, receiving a prestigious Peabody Award for the coming-out episode, which also earned an Emmy. Reruns of "Ellen" will be shown beginning next season on the Lifetime cable network, another Disney property.

DeGeneres has yet to make public any future career plans. "We're talking about different things," said Lee Gabler, co-chairman of the Creative Artists Agency, which represents her.

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