With the announcement on Wednesday that she will end her long-running talk show next year, Ellen DeGeneres is stepping away from her biggest platform in a career that started in a New Orleans comedy club, led her to more than 30 Emmys and the Presidential Medal of Freedom and included a late phase during which she adopted Be Kind as a motto and brand name for products she sold to her fans.
Her decision followed a sharp ratings decline for “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” also known as “Ellen,” which is in its 18th season. Since September, it has lost more than a million viewers, a bigger drop than any of her competitors have gone through this television season.
Once at the very top of her field, Ms. DeGeneres, 63, was bringing in roughly the same number of viewers as Maury Povich and Kelly Clarkson, daytime hosts who, until recently, did not give her much competition. “Ellen” has averaged about 1.4 million viewers in the 2020-21 season, a 44 percent decline from about 2.6 million last season, according to Nielsen.
The decline seems to have affected the bottom line. Between September and February, the show brought in $127.6 million in advertising revenue, according to the research firm Kantar. That was down from $163.8 million in the same six months in the previous season, a 22 percent decline.
The slide started shortly after BuzzFeed News reported in July that several former and current staff members said they had confronted “racism, fear and intimidation” at work. Several employees also said producers had sexually harassed them. After an investigation by Warner Bros., the company that produces the show, three high-level producers were fired.
Ms. DeGeneres apologized to her staff in the summer, when the show was on hiatus. On her return to the air in September, she addressed her viewers: “I learned that things happen here that never should have happened. I take that very seriously. And I want to say I am so sorry to the people who were affected.”
That episode scored the biggest ratings for “Ellen” in four years. Then viewers started tuning out.
The on-air apology was also a rare moment of seriousness on a program known for its nonstop levity. For 18 years, it has been a daily hour of light jokes, cash giveaways and gossipy chats with Hollywood A-listers. Celebrities including Beyoncé, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Lange, Madonna, John Travolta, and Barack and Michelle Obama broke out their goofiest moves as they danced with the show’s star.
“Ellen” was a natural outgrowth of Ms. DeGeneres’s standup act. She started out as a lighthearted comic with an absurdist streak, a rare figure whose jokes were family-friendly in the blustery, macho comedy world of the 1980s, when the noisier Sam Kinison, Eddie Murphy and Andrew Dice Clay drew the crowds.
Quietly, she was a groundbreaker, even early in her career. In 1986, Ms. DeGeneres was the first female comedian making her “The Tonight Show” debut to be invited by Johnny Carson to sit by his desk, a gesture of respect. More momentously, as the star of the hit ABC sitcom “Ellen” in 1997, she announced that she was gay.
It is an all but forgotten part of her story that her decision to publicly state her sexual identity nearly ended her career. Years after her sitcom had gone dark, Ms. DeGeneres was still at a low point. Jim Paratore, an executive at Telepictures, which was part of Warner Bros., believed she had what it took to be a hit on daytime TV. Managers of local TV stations initially did not think the same.
“I was not an easy sale; they were telling me I couldn’t relate to housewives,” Ms. DeGeneres said in a 2012 interview with The New York Times. “Jim wouldn’t accept that.”
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Mr. Paratore introduced her to people at stations across the country, the affiliates agreed to carry “Ellen” — and it was a hit, often drawing an audience of roughly three million.
As the show went on, its host displayed more sides of herself. After the 2010 suicide of Tyler Clementi, a gay college student who was bullied, Ms. DeGeneres adopted her catchphrase, ending each episode with the words “Be kind to one another.”
Be Kind by Ellen became a mini-industry. Subscribers to Be Kind who pay $197.96 a year receive four boxes, one for each season, filled with products from socially or environmentally conscious brands. The Be Kind Box now available includes “ice globe facial massagers” from the brand Aceology, a vegan leather shoulder bag from Samara and a reusable water bottle from Fill It Forward. The products are selected by Ms. DeGeneres.
The complaints about the “Ellen” workplace seemed to contradict the host’s public image, and she suddenly found herself the subject of criticism. Social-media users combed through footage of her interviews to find spicy remarks she had made to celebrity guests, as if turning up evidence that the niceness was a ruse.
She noted all this in her on-air apology, telling viewers, “Being known as the Be Kind Lady is a tricky position to be in. So let me give you some advice. If anyone is thinking of changing their title or giving yourself a nickname, do not go with the Be Kind Lady.”
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter published on Wednesday, Ms. DeGeneres denied that the workplace allegations had anything to do with her departure, saying she had long known 2022 would be the final year of her talk show.
She had indeed hinted at pulling the plug in recent years. In a 2018 interview with The Times, she suggested she was weary of always having to put on a cheerful face and said she had been prepared to leave the show until her brother, the comedian Vance DeGeneres, persuaded her to stay on, arguing that people needed a break from the volatility of the Trump years.
She signed a new contract through 2022. And she reached a separate deal with Warner Media to create shows for its streaming platform, HBO Max, among other projects. Then things got difficult.
The pandemic probably didn’t help the ratings for “Ellen.” The restrictions forced Ms. DeGeneres to broadcast from her home part of last year, depriving her of the interactions with an often boisterous studio audience. She has been back in her Warner Bros. studio this season but has been stuck playing to large TV screens filled with images of audience members watching from their homes.
“Although all good things must come to an end, you still have hope that the truly great things never will,” Mike Darnell, the president of the Warner Bros. unscripted television division, said in a statement on Wednesday. “‘The Ellen Show’ started as the little program that could and became an absolute phenomenon.”
He added, “It was and is an indelible piece of the television landscape, and it will be sorely missed.”
Even at the start, Ms. DeGeneres was more than just affable. In her career-making debut on “The Tonight Show,” in 1986, she started with a joke that seemed harmless enough at first.
Setup: “My grandmother started walking five miles a day when she was 60.”
Punchline: “She’s 97 today and we don’t know where the hell she is.”
And then came the kicker: “I’m kidding. We know where she is. She’s in prison.”