In May 2010, well before the TikTok era, a 12-year-old from Oklahoma named Greyson Chance was called to the “Ellen DeGeneres Show”. A few weeks earlier, Greyson had gained viral fame early on after posting his middle school talent show performance of Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” on YouTube. When Greyson got on the show, where he was sitting in a plush chair directly across from the daytime star, discussing his Gaga cover, the YouTube video had a million page views.
His “Ellen” performance brought him into a new stratosphere. In the days that followed, media coverage of the 12-year-old sensation exploded, and its performance surged to over 30 million views. Madonna and Lady Gaga’s managers represented him. Ms. DeGeneres signed a recording deal with him.
“It’s crazy to think of 30 million people,” Greyson said when he returned to the show two weeks later. “It just makes me happy.”
Next year, Ms. DeGeneres will step down from her talk show on the day and unsubscribe after a 19 year streak of light jokes, celebrity interviews, and cash gifts. But perhaps one of her show’s most enduring legacies was her host role in the early viral video industry: an appearance on “Ellen” brought a viral sensation with a whole new wave of clicks, fame, and money.
“She was the originator of creating viral content from other viral content,” said Lindsey Weber, one of the hosts of Who? Weekly, a podcast that focuses on celebrity culture. “She would take a moment that went viral and improve it. She had so many viral people on her show and being on her show was the height of her viral success. “
When viewing habits changed, Ms. DeGeneres’ role as patron saint of digital stars also changed.
Last year, shortly after Warner Bros. conducted an investigation into workplace misconduct on the set of “Ellen,” Ms. DeGeneres’ role on daytime television diminished. Their audience numbers have dropped 44 percent this season, and competitors like “Dr. Phil “(2.4 million viewers) and” Live With Kelly and Ryan “(2.6 million) now beat” Ellen “by around one million viewers.
When a YouTube or TikTok performance gets going, a stop at “Ellen” is no longer an important step in reaching a new threshold of fame.
“Ellen could rip you off YouTube and make you a star,” said Joe Kessler, global director of UTA IQ at the United Talent Agency, which uses data analytics to advise clients on digital strategies.
Now, he said, artists can achieve similar or even greater success by engaging their fans and mastering the various digital platforms themselves.
“It’s interesting that the end of Ellen’s show coincides with YouTube and other video platforms exploding to the point where they’re now mainstream,” he continued. “Creators don’t need traditional mainstream endorsement to build huge audiences right now.”
But before do-it-yourself content creation became an industry, there was “Ellen”. In 2010, five years after YouTube was founded, the show introduced a segment titled “Ellen’s Wonderful Web of Wonders,” which promised to “find undiscovered talent online and share with you!”
As more viral stars hit their show, every time an online video gained prominence a decade ago, people would reply or comment on these videos: ‘Tell Ellen!’ ‘Call Ellen!’ “Said Mrs. Weber. “Strangely enough, that was the supposed next step for everyone.”
A year after Greyson Chance appeared on Ellen, the show invited 8-year-old Sophia Grace, an aspiring internet personality, and her cousin Rosie to come from England and do a cover for a Nicki Minaj song. The video now has more than 144 million views on YouTube.
An “Ellen” gig usually had a twist as well. When Greyson arrived, Lady Gaga called the show herself to express her admiration for his performance. When Sophia Grace appeared in “Ellen”, Nicki Minaj appeared surprisingly and the 8-year-old threw herself into the arms of the singer.
And an appearance on “Ellen” served a dual purpose: it would both draw attention to the viral content, and the appearance itself could go viral as well, which is a two-on-one way to reach millions.
“The interviews she conducted with these viral personalities would get millions or tens of millions of views,” said Earnest Pettie, who leads YouTube’s Trends and Insights team. “It would be as visible as the original source material. For many people, the interviews were their first encounter with viral personalities. But people who have already faced it might go deeper than they would on a viral video. “
Money could be made even if it wasn’t at the influencer level now. When David DeVore posted a video in 2009 of his 7-year-old son, also called David, returning home dazed from a trip to the dentist, the video quickly garnered millions of views and became an early YouTube hit. By 2010, Mr. DeVore estimated the family had made $ 150,000 from all exposure, including T-shirt sales. And they’re not quite finished milking either. Earlier this month, Mr. DeVore auctioned “David After Dentist” as an NFT or non-fungible token, a digital collector’s item, BuzzFeed reported. It sold for $ 13,000.
Mr. Kessler from UTA estimated that great digital personalities could be in the mid six-digit range in the early 2010s.
An influencer can now make millions and in a few cases tens of millions. And when YouTube and TikTok helped the influencer industry escape, Ms. DeGeneres’ role as digital kingmaker began to wane.
“If we compare it to now, people’s viral moments are shorter,” said Ms. Weber. “In the time it takes for a producer to call and say, ‘Come on, Ellen! ‘There’s a new viral moment somewhere else. It will be a thing of the past. “