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Audiences debate Ellen's coming out

May 1, 1997
Web posted at: 4:01 p.m. EDT (2001 GMT)

From Correspondent Sherri Sylvester


LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- After months of speculation and a seemingly endless media frenzy, the character Ellen Morgan finally spoke words rarely heard during prime time: "I'm gay."

No lead character in a prime-time TV show had ever come out to viewers. The episode scored a 26.5 rating and 37 share in Nielsen Media Research's overnight measurements.

Listeners in Los Angeles and New York, gathered at two of six "Come out with Ellen" parties sponsored by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, applauded the show. "You did a great job, Ellen," said one New York woman.

"I think they showed the humor to the straight people of the world, how silly it sounds when they say things to us," said another woman at the New York party.

Meanwhile, a man in Los Angeles found the way they deal with the issue "very sensitive, and something I can actually talk to my mom and dad about because they watched it too."

Cheering viewers

More than 2,000 paying guests attended a party in Birmingham, Alabama, to watch the show via satellite, after the local ABC affiliate refused to air the episode. On this night, men handed out religious pamphlets even as guests gathered in the Birmingham City Auditorium.

The Rev. Louis Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition, who watched from his home in conservative Orange County, California, supported the Birmingham affiliate's decision.

"You don't want to put in a child's mind this gay-affirming role model and that's what Ellen did tonight, it gay-affirmed. It said to them, hey, this is great, let's experiment," Sheldon said.

"It's like the whole thing is written just to satisfy the gay community."

In Waco, Texas, Pastor Kenneth Moerbe of St. Matthew's Lutheran Church suggested the show served a purpose. "If there's something here that helps all of us to better understand our own sexuality, then I think that can be helpful," he said.

Protests against show

Another Waco clergyman, Associate Pastor Bob Morris of Meadowbrook Baptist Church, disagreed, implying that the show was too confrontational. "She's saying I'm a homosexual and I don't have a problem with that. You do, deal with it," he said.

Times have changed. ABC lost $1 million in advertising revenue when the "thirtysomething" show depicted two gay men in bed. Seven years later, there are sponsors for "Ellen" and they reportedly paid more than $300,000 for each 30-second spot.

Chrysler was one company that opted not to buy commercial time. "We're not on a crusade to change morals in this country as a company. As individuals we may well be, but as a company that's just not our role," said Robert Eaton, the chairman of the Chrysler Corp.

But talk show hostess Oprah Winfrey had no problems with appearing on the episode. Playing a psychologist, she asks DeGeneres' character after her announcement, "So what are you gonna do now?"

"I'm going to Disneyland," Ellen replied.

Disney, which owns ABC, took heat for committing to the controversial episode. And although the ratings were solid for the episode, for the season, the show has been a ratings disappointment, ranking only 37th for the season. ABC has not yet committed to renewing the show.

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