When Ellen DeGeneres and the character she plays "came out" as a lesbian, her television show graduated from situation comedy to political symbol--a national referendum on public acceptance of gays and lesbians.
If ABC cancels the program, it will be because "Ellen" didn't fulfill the primary assignment of any TV show--namely, attracting viewers, or at least hanging on to the ones a network already has.
"Ellen" became the first network series to feature an openly gay lead character. For gays, whose presence in prime time has gradually increased, that development represented a cultural breakthrough. For those who see homosexuality as immoral, the news provided further evidence of Hollywood championing a liberal agenda countering "family values."
Both sides have pressured ABC and its corporate parent, the Walt Disney Co., regarding the future of the show. The network has stated that a decision regarding a sixth season of "Ellen" won't be made before ABC sets its fall schedule in May.
DeGeneres reiterated Saturday night that she's "assuming" the show won't be back. Accepting the "creative integrity" award from the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, she said that after she "came out" the network "wanted me to go back in the closet. The writers and I fought every single episode to do what we did."
Whatever the outcome, someone is sure to be upset. The Human Rights Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based gay rights organization, urged members to write ABC's president on behalf of the show. Fundamentalist Christian groups have weighed in against the series.
Divorced from that political context, however, an analysis of "Ellen's" ratings reveals a show deserted by a substantial part of its audience. Consider the following statistics gleaned from Nielsen Media Research:
* More than 36 million people tuned in the coming-out episode last April, exceeding the average audience for television's top-rated programs, "ER" and "Seinfeld." Ratings stayed above average the next two weeks, exceeding 16 million viewers.
* In October, after the new TV season began, "Ellen" averaged 15.3 million viewers a week, falling a respectable 14%--or losing about 2.6 million viewers--from the audience level of the program that precedes it, "The Drew Carey Show."
* The show's ratings have rapidly declined since then. During calendar-year 1998, "Ellen" has drawn 10.6 million viewers a week, giving up 5.5 million people--or 34%--from "Drew Carey's" audience.
Any program losing more than 20% of its lead-in audience risks cancellation. NBC, for example, recently killed "Union Square" for failing to retain an acceptable percentage of the "Friends" audience, even though the show still ranks No. 9 among prime-time series broadcast this season.
Other factors can and do play a part in a renewal decision, and few augur in "Ellen's" favor. Sources say DeGeneres has antagonized ABC executives--publicly criticizing them for placing viewer-discretion advisories on the show, and returning gifts they sent to her.
Some ABC affiliates, meanwhile, feel they were misled as to the direction the show would take this season. This week, the trade newspaper Daily Variety reported that a station in Columbus, Ohio, plans to preempt "Ellen" with "Seinfeld" reruns through May.
In short, "Ellen" is causing ABC considerable grief relative to its performance--and history shows that a network's willingness to ignore hassles and star quirks tends to be in direct proportion to a program's ratings.
Balanced against that, ABC executives and many TV critics feel the series has been funnier and sharper since Ellen came out, providing the show with a clearer point of view.
Desperate to find new hits, ABC will replace "Ellen" beginning tonight with a new comedy, "Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place." Though "Ellen" is scheduled to return in May--including a star-studded episode with cameos by Helen Hunt, Woody Harrelson and "ER's" Julianna Margulies, to name a few--if "Two Guys" delivers Nielsen-wise, its future appears bleak.
Tim Doyle, who took over as "Ellen's" executive producer this season, contends that bigotry is at the root of the show's ratings woes and that ABC has done little to discourage that prejudice with its tentative approach.
The network, he said, has "mismanaged the public perception of this show. . . . People have been given permission to have the negative feelings they have [about the series]."
While lauding the network for taking the initial step, some gay activists also blame ABC for failing to adequately support and promote "Ellen."
"Since the coming-out episode, ABC has treated the show like an errant stepchild," said David Smith, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, who hopes the network will move the series so it can "find its niche." Although its Wednesday time slot is deemed one of ABC's best, DeGeneres told "Entertainment Tonight" that the "Drew Carey" audience doesn't mesh well with her own.