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In May 2010, well before the TikTok era, a 12-year-old from Oklahoma named Greyson Chance was summoned to “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” A couple of weeks earlier, Greyson had found early viral fame after he posted his middle school talent show performance of Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” on YouTube. When Greyson came on the show, where he sat in a plush chair directly across from the daytime star and discussed his Gaga cover, the YouTube video had a million page views.
His “Ellen” appearance brought him to a new stratosphere. In the following days, media coverage around the 12-year-old sensation exploded, and his performance ballooned to more than 30 million views. Madonna’s and Lady Gaga’s managers began representing him. Ms. DeGeneres signed him to a record contract.
“It’s crazy thinking about 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 daytime talk show, signing off after a 19-season run of light jokes, celebrity interviews and cash giveaways. But perhaps one of the most enduring legacies of her show was the host’s role in the early viral video economy: Making an appearance on “Ellen” brought a viral sensation a whole new wave of clicks, fame and cash.
“She was the originator of creating viral content off of other viral content,” said Lindsey Weber, one of the hosts of “Who? Weekly,” a podcast focused on celebrity culture. “She would take a moment that went viral and level it up. She had so many viral people on her show, and being on her show was the pinnacle of their viral success.”
As viewing habits changed, so did Ms. DeGeneres’s role as a patron saint of digital stars.
In the last year, shortly after Warner Bros. conducted an investigation into workplace misconduct on the set of “Ellen,” Ms. DeGeneres’ role in daytime television has diminished. Her viewership figures have plummeted 44 percent this season, and competitors like “Dr. Phil” (2.4 million viewers) and “Live With Kelly and Ryan” (2.6 million) are now beating “Ellen” by roughly a million viewers.
Likewise, if a YouTube or TikTok performance begins to catch steam, a stop on “Ellen” is no longer a key step to hitting a new threshold of fame.
“Ellen could pluck you off YouTube and make you a star,” said Joe Kessler, the global head of the United Talent Agency’s UTA IQ division, which uses data analytics to advise clients on digital strategies.
Now, he said, performers can achieve similar success — or even greater success — by engaging their fans and by 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 are now the mainstream,” he continued. “Creators don’t need traditional mainstream affirmation to build enormous audiences 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 called “Ellen’s Wonderful Web of Wonderment,” which promised to “find undiscovered talent online & share it with you!”
As more viral stars appeared on her show, any time an online video started gaining traction a decade ago, “people would reply or comment on these videos: ‘Tell Ellen!’ ‘Call Ellen!’” Ms. Weber said. “That was weirdly the assumed next step for everyone.”
The year after Greyson Chance appeared on “Ellen,” the show invited 8-year-old Sophia Grace, a burgeoning internet personality, and her cousin Rosie to come in from England and to do a cover of a Nicki Minaj song. That video now has more than 144 million views on YouTube.
An “Ellen” appearance usually featured a twist, too. When Greyson came on, Lady Gaga herself phoned in to the show to express her admiration for his performance. When Sophia Grace appeared on “Ellen,” Nicki Minaj made a surprise appearance, and the 8-year-old flung herself into the arms of the singer.
And an appearance on “Ellen” served a dual purpose: It would both call attention to the viral content, and the appearance itself could go viral too, making for a two-for-one way to reach millions.
“The interviews she did 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 itself. For many people, the interviews were their first exposure to viral personalities. But people who were already exposed to it could go deeper than they could in a viral video.”
Money could be made, even if it wasn’t at the level of an influencer now. In 2009, when David DeVore posted a video of his 7-year-old son, who is also named David, groggily returning home from a trip to the dentist, the video quickly earned millions of views and became an early YouTube hit. By 2010, Mr. DeVore estimated that the family had taken in $150,000 from all the exposure, including the sales of T-shirts. And they’re not quite finished milking it, either. Earlier this month, Mr. DeVore auctioned “David After Dentist” as an NFT, or a nonfungible token, a digital collectible item, BuzzFeed reported. It sold for $13,000.
Mr. Kessler, from UTA, estimated that big digital personalities in the early 2010s could make in the mid-six figures.
An influencer now can make in the millions, and in a handful of cases, tens of millions. And as YouTube and TikTok helped the influencer industry take flight, Ms. DeGeneres’s role as a digital kingmaker began to wane.
“If we’re comparing it to now, people’s viral moments are shorter,” Ms. Weber said. “In the time it takes as a producer to call and say, ‘Come on Ellen!’ there’s a new viral moment somewhere else. It’ll be passé.”