Ellen DeGeneres took social media by storm during the 2014 Academy Awards when she tweeted a selfie taken with a group of celebrities – including Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lawrence – that became the most viral photo ever on the platform, with more than 3.3 million retweets.
Now, DeGeneres, 58, and her team are working to extend the social media reach of her syndicated “The Ellen Show” with the launch of Ellen Digital Network, a production division developing six original online shows featuring guests popular on her TV show, many of whom are already social media stars. The biggest name among the group is probably YouTube video blogger Tyler Oakley, 26, who boasts more than 8 million subscribers on the streaming platform.
Most of DeGeneres’ digital content since 2014 has been launched through Burbank’s Ellen Digital Ventures, a two-year-old joint venture with Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. Its flagship property is EllenTube.com – a website where fans can watch clips from her show, funny amateur videos (think cats and dancing), and original shorts.
The company decided to launch the digital production arm as a way to create more content in-house, expand its audience, and broaden its revenue streams, said Jill Braff, general manager of Ellen Digital Ventures.
“The birth of Ellen Digital Network is our team creating a network for brands and advertising to partner with us,” she said, adding that DeGeneres’ Oscar stunt was not just a slapdash attempt to increase millennial Twitter followers. It was part of a conscious effort to engage with users online and offer them new – yet familiar – entertainment that’s tailored to specific platforms.
DeGeneres makes a point to adopt social media early and often, said Braff.
“If you look back, the show was very early involved with Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, long before they were the powerhouses they are today,” she said, noting that DeGeneres made a Facebook Live video with rapper Nicki Minaj the day it launched.
This approach combined with DeGeneres’ knack for inserting herself into internet conversations about pop culture has helped “Ellen Show” rack up a massive online following of roughly 60 million Twitter fans and 24 million “likes” on Facebook. Clips of talk show have also been viewed more than 8.5 billion times on YouTube.
“Ellen’s dominance in daytime TV was absolutely translating into a digital audience that was complimentary to what was being created on TV,” said Braff.
Warner representatives declined to comment.
But more than using social media to push TV segments about celebrity guests, the show has been keen to bring on social media stars, such as Oakley. Championing guests with everyday personas has been part of the program’s success on social media, said Neil Landau, associate director of UCLA’s department of film, television, and digital media.
“The buzzword is ‘authenticity,’” he said. “She really embodies the whole idea of be true to yourself. She champions the underdog.”
DeGeneres has also pursued the lucrative mobile-game market – an industry that has generated millions of dollars in revenue for celebrities, notably Kim Kardashian.
DeGeneres launched the game “Heads Up!” in 2013, based on a lighthearted charades game segment from her TV show. The mobile game costs $1 and has been downloaded 24 million times, making it the No. 1 paid game app both last year and 2014 in Apple Inc.’s App Store, according to Ellen Digital Ventures. Her company, along with Warner, also debuted a free-to-play mobile game called “Psych!” in October.
DeGeneres’ decision to expand her brand online rather than on traditional TV makes sense, said Jacob Carlson, a consulting manager for Manatt Digital Media in West Los Angeles.
“Traditional TV ratings are falling, advertising is moving over to digital. It’s just the natural progression of how consumers are consuming content,” he said. “In order to be successful and see this transformation through, being able to have one foot in the digital space is frankly necessary to make it to the other side.”
Ellen Digital Network has thus far produced shows such as “tWitch & Allison’s Dance Challenge,” about child dancers starring a pair of choreographers who have appeared on her talk show numerous times. It can be viewed on EllenTube, but other shows will be distributed on separate social media platforms. For example, the network is producing a show on Snapchat called “Damn, Daniel” featuring a pair of teenage boys who produced a viral video that has been viewed more than 12.4 million times.
There are risks for DeGeneres in being on every platform at once, said Seth Shapiro, a TV and digital media consultant with L.A.’s New Amsterdam Media.
“The risk of doing a bunch of these different things becomes oversaturation of the brand,” he said. “You really don’t want people to see you so much that they burn out and say enough.”
Though she’s the queen of daytime talk, DeGeneres hasn’t been immune to flops, including a short-lived stint as a judge on “American Idol.” She also executive produced hidden-camera prank show “Repeat After Me,” which was based on a popular segment from her talk show but was canceled by ABC last year after one season.
Still, Braff and Ellen Digital Ventures see DeGeneres’ gift for engaging fans online as a valuable asset. Plus, they’re not going to greenlight every idea that pops into their heads, she explained.
“Certainly we are careful to not overexpose the brand,” said Braff. “But there is so much opportunity.”
Even if the digital venture fails, DeGeneres’ exposure might be limited. The cost of producing an online show is much lower than on broadcast or cable TV, said Sophia Rossi, chief executive of female-focused digital entertainment company Hello Giggles, which she co-founded in 2013 with actress Zooey Deschanel and Molly McAleer. Time Inc. bought the downtown L.A. firm in October for $30 million.
“The benefit of anything digital is that there is the data to show what works early on,” Rossi said. “You don’t really risk it as you do on TV.”
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