Ellen DeGeneres Has Wildly Ambitious Plans for ‘Snack-Sized Entertainment’

June 3, 2016, 3:32 PM UTC
Nickelodeon's 2016 Kids' Choice Awards - Roaming Show
INGLEWOOD, CA - MARCH 12: TV personality Ellen DeGeneres takes a photograph while speaking onstage during Nickelodeon's 2016 Kids' Choice Awards at The Forum on March 12, 2016 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/KCA2016/WireImage)
Photograph by Kevin Mazur/KCA2016 — WireImage via Getty Images

Earlier this month, Ellen DeGeneres expanded her personal brand further into the digital realm with the unveiling of her Ellen Digital Network—an initiative greeted by fans with a kind of instant recognition not dissimilar to hitting “Like” on Facebook.

Over the last decade, the Emmy-winning talk show host has morphed into a social media maven, amassing a gigantic follower base on Twitter, Instagram, Vine, Snapchat, Facebook (FB) and Periscope that generated more than a billion cross-platform views in 2015.

And in partnership with Warner Bros. Television, her digital network intends to build upon Degeneres’ existing digital footprint—which encompasses the video hub ellentube, the website for her top-rated-in-its-slot NBC program The Ellen DeGeneres Show EllenTV.com and her official YouTube channel—to launch a spate of new web and social-media series, effectively creating a new business model for TV-to-online brand integration in the process.

In 2011, at the peak of her cultural influence, Oprah Winfrey announced she was ending her eponymous daytime talk show to launch the Oprah Winfrey Network: a 24-hour cable station to reflect her “visions, values and interests” (that was initially met with dismal ratings and poor viewer engagement). Unlike OWN, however, DeGeneres’ network has its sights set on a humbler prize: monetizing “snack-sized entertainment” on consumers’ smart phones.

Native advertising and YouTube stars

To hear it from Jill Braff, general manager of DeGeneres’ umbrella company Ellen Digital Ventures, the Ellen Digital Network will encompass short-form video, user-driven content, mobile gaming and branded advertising content—all unified by the comedian’s freewheeling, pro-social, zeitgeist-riding sensibilities—to drive audience engagement as well as new revenue streams. And key to that plan is custom content: short-form videos, created by DeGeneres and her team, to promote brands.

Ellen Digital New Front
Jill Braff GM, Ellen Digital VenturesPhoto by Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images for Ellen Digital New Front

“We have this engaged audience that is spending quite a significant amount of time not only on our own sites but in our expanded universe,” Braff, a former executive vice president of Home Shopping Network (HSN), said in an interview with Fortune. “We believe we can drive a stronger engagement story than anyone else because we’ve had years of creating award-winning content that is truly entertaining.”

Exhibit A: a short video introduced on ellentube on May 17 titled “Ellen’s 360° Surprise!” While tonally consistent with the type of situational humor sketches seen on the Ellen show, the clip is in fact native advertisement for Liberty Mutual Insurance Company—an early indication of the type of multi-platform ad campaigns that will become available on the Ellen Digital Network later this year.

“The challenge for us is to find compelling ways to tell our brand story: the importance of benefits and insurance coverage,” said Emily Fink, vice president and manager of digital and direct marketing for Liberty Mutual Insurance. “The Ellen team was able to take our brand strategy and package it in a way that was compelling to their audience.”

“In just two weeks, we have over 20 million impressions. We have five or six million video views already. Also if you look at the comments, you see people talking about how cool the technology is, how nice it is that Liberty Mutual partnered with Ellen. There’s a lot of very positive feedback,” she said.

Braff—who previously oversaw an extensive redesign of HSN’s e-commerce platform—insists that entertainment value is always paramount. “When we approached this video, it’s really about, ‘Well, what’s in it for the viewer? Why is this fun to watch?’” she said.

New series

DeGeneres will be showcasing home-grown talent and YouTube phenoms in new web and social-media series, to air in the fall. Among them:

  • Damn, Daniel Boyz: DeGeneres will team with viral video phenoms Daniel Lara and Joshua Holz—the Southern California teens whose weirdly engrossing series of SnapChats became an internet sensation in 2016—for an original series premiering on (where else?) SnapChat. (The “Damn, Daniel” boys first mainstream exposure came on the Ellen show.)
  • tWitch and Allison’s Dance Challenge: A dance competition to be hosted and judged by choreographers Stephen “tWitch” Boss (DeGeneres’ former TV show DJ) and his wife Allison Holker (of Dancing With the Stars fame)
  • Ellen’s Pet Dish: An animated series produced in conjunction with Warner Bros.’ digital production studio Blue Ribbon Content in which DeGeneres will provide a comedic running commentary on the “adventures” of her pets a la MTV’s Beavis & Butt-head or Mystery Science Theater 3000
  • She’s Brielle-iant: Another ellentube offering featuring Brielle Milla, a 4-year-old prodigy originally discovered on DeGeneres’ fan engagement website, in which the child’s precocious intellect is put to the test against topics including the human body, the periodic table and world geography.

Ellen Digital Network also recently made a strategic content-development pact with the 27-year-old vlogger Tyler Oakley. Within the company, his status as a pop cultural-fluent gay rights advocate and social media “influencer”—with 8.1 million YouTube subscribers, 5.2 million Twitter followers and 6.2 million Instagram faithful—is seen as a natural fit. “We know we can extend what we are doing with him,” Braff said. “We have not yet announced what that series will be. But we are exploring what we can do with him in this new space. We can bring in not only Ellen’s audience but his audience.”

[caption id="attachment_1684688" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Ellen DeGeneres, with the Damn Daniel Boys.Photography by Michael Rozman/Warner Bros.

Photography by Eugene Gologursky Getty Images for Ellen Digital N

Going after gamers

According to Braff, mobile gaming also plays a key part in DeGeneres’ overall business plan. One such Ellen-branded iPhone game, Heads Up!, was co-produced by Telepictures (the production company behind the Ellen show) and the app development studio Impending, specifically to expand the comedian’s digital footprint. To date, Heads Up!, which costs $0.99, has sold 24 million downloads and became a top seller at the App Store in 2013, 2014 and 2015.

“Whether I’m watching ellentube or playing Heads Up!, I’m on the same device,” noted Braff, who worked at Nintendo and Sega of America early in her career and also served as senior vice president at Glu Mobile, a developer/publisher of mobile games through the mid-‘00s. “So if we can connect the dots for people and stay true to what got us here in the first place, that is the road we are pursuing.”

That kind of thinking provides something like a mission statement for DeGeneres’ digital push. And rather than rely on focus groups or audience research surveys to dictate programming, the Ellen Digital Network plans to keep its ear to the digital train track and minutely calibrate its content to keep pace with consumer interest.

“We have this range that will give us a lot of feedback about what our audience is looking for,” said Braff. “The beauty of technology is, it’s really consumers who show us how they use it. And then we program in a way that fits their needs. That’s what the new world is laying out for us. We hope to entertain and have fun and keep delivering the amazing content we have—and see where the road takes us.”

Chris Lee is a former staff writer for Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He covers entertainment, culture and business in Los Angeles.