In Depth

Checking Out 'Ellen's' New Look

Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution’s “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” is quickly becoming the feel-good story in the syndication talk-show genre. The program is posting year-to-year ratings increases in an environment where staying flat is considered success. Kicking off her sixth season in 2008, Ms. DeGeneres moved into new digs, setting up shop in a state-of-the-art high-definition studio on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, Calif.

TelevisionWeek reporter Andrew Krukowski visited the set and sat in on the Dec. 18 taping of “Ellen” to get a behind-the-scenes look at what’s involved in creating the show. He learned that the recipe for success requires much more than a dancing host and audience giveaways.

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The opening notes of Andy Williams’ “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” begin to play, and the audience screams in surprise. There’s going to be yet another giveaway on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.”

When a person dressed as a giant mug of hot chocolate starts dancing on stage, the audience goes into a bigger frenzy. Some are even starting to cry.

Ms. DeGeneres reads off what the audience is getting today, but she is drowned out by the cheers in the studio. The buzz continues into the commercial break. Most audience members look drained, as if they just ran a marathon. A family in the front row shares a four-person hug.

Holiday giveaways are not unusual on the Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution strip; traditionally, Ms. DeGeneres gives extravagant gifts to her audience members over the 12 days leading up to Christmas. But today’s gifts come as a surprise since the show is being taped for a Jan. 5 airdate, and Ellen is distributing prizes for a 13th day.

“I knew it! I just knew they were going to do something,” one audience member says to the person sitting next to her.

The stunt has proved to be a big viewership draw. This year’s giveaway helped “Ellen” tie its series household ratings high during the week ending Dec. 21.

Having moved to a new studio on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank in 2008, at the start of its sixth season, “Ellen” has used the new digs to its best advantage.

Occupying what once were three separate stages on the lot, “Ellen” turned one stage into a state-of-the-art high-definition control room featuring a tapeless recording system that allows producers to cut clips and promos for the show mid-taping. The other two stages were combined, allowing for more audience seating and a bigger backstage area, which looks like a warehouse, with palettes full of presents and products to be wheeled on stage at a moment’s notice.

“Inside of five minutes, what we can do is have those [stage] doors fly open and 300 TVs that we’re giving to the audience come out. Two minutes later, those doors open and there’s a whole band set up. … Come back after a live commercial break, and there’s a car sitting there,” says Andy Lassner, “Ellen” executive producer.

The audience at “Ellen” seems to be as much a part of the show as Ms. DeGeneres herself. Audience members are involved in games on stage, receive visits from Ms. DeGeneres at their homes or just dance in the studio.

As a matter of fact, dancing comprises a majority of the audience’s time during the tapings. For nearly a half-hour before the show, at the top of the program and during commercial breaks, the audience is up and out of their seats, shaking their groove things.

The new tapeless recording system comes into play as audience members are called down to the stage to dance during the pre-show warm-up.

That footage is cut and edited into the show no less than 10 minutes later.

The control room itself is an impressive array of LCD flatscreens with individual windows on each screen showing what’s occurring on every camera and editing bay in the studio. It’s a marked difference from the multitude of separate monitors in standard control rooms.

“We can see what all of our editors are doing in this [control] room,” Ed Glavin, another executive producer, says. “And where last year we might have to take a tape and run it from a tape room to a control room … we can just feed right from an editor’s bay not just to the control room, but onto the air.”

The screens display different angles of the stage, but also shots from outdoor cameras. A hefty majority of the cameras are trained on the audience.

“We do a lot of audience reactions given whatever Ellen is doing on the air,” Mr. Glavin says.

“Ellen’s” new studio holds 300 audience members, up 40 seats from the previous studio. The studio also contains a spillover area called “the Riff-Raff Room” for show-goers who couldn’t obtain a ticket.

“Ellen’s biggest rule when she started a talk show is she wants no audience turned away. At other shows, they get sent home,” Mr. Lassner says.

The Riff-Raff Room also contains the Ellen Store, which sells Ellen-branded sweatshirts, T-shirts, DVDs and even Ellen Water.

“It tastes funny,” reads the label on the bottle.