Wednesday, July 6

How Ellen DeGeneres won, and then lost, a generation of viewers

Los Angeles — When Ellen DeGeneres launched her daytime talk show, it felt like a flag planted on lunar terrain.

Six years earlier, the comedian and her sitcom character had come out, in tandem, in what remains the single most well-known moment in the history of queer television. But as one learns in Steven Capsuto’s indispensable book “Alternate Channels” and “Visible: Out on Television,” the extraordinary Apple TV+ docuseries it inspired, that interest soon waned.

Producer Ellen DeGeneres attends Netflix's Season 1 premiere of

As the news cycle moved on, ABC, which aired “Ellen,” grew uncomfortable with its handling of the character’s coming-out process, which it depicted in sympathetic, radical-for-its-time detail. Almost exactly one year after its namesake appeared on the cover of Time, the series was unceremoniously canceled.

Now, as Karl Rove strived to turn marriage equality into the “wedge issue” that would win President George W. Bush reelection, Ellen’s next act seemed equally momentous. With the premiere of “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” on Sept. 8, 2003, she would drop in every afternoon on our mothers and grandmothers — a lesbian in a sweater vest at the suburban coffee klatch table — and offer a daily reminder that queers were fundamentally “normal,” no threat worth waging an election campaign over.

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