By Bill Keveney USA Today
As a TV Producer, Ellen DeGeneres has a great laboratory for prime-time success: her daytime talk show. In addition to the Ellen DeGeneres Show, now in its 14th season and syndicated to 211 stations, DeGeneres' Warner Bros.-based A Very Good Production company is behind a growing list of NBC reality shows.
Little Big Shots, an out-of-the-gate hit now in its second season (Sunday, 8 ET/PT), and a planned summer spinoff featuring seniors, have roots in the host's interactions with guests young and old on Ellen. Another new series, Ellen's Game of Games, will feature expanded versions of popular daytime games, including Know and Go and Sorry Spin.
And First Dates (April 7, 8 ET/PT), based on a British format, also represents her sensibility, embracing the touching moments and comic awkwardness of first-time encounters.
"Everything on television, especially reality, is either competition or salacious, and this is neither," DeGeneres says of Dates. "It's the same with Little Big Shots. That's not competition, either. It's just really sweet and tender and the whole family can enjoy it."
The host's experiences on Ellen also inspired Little Big Shots, which features Steve Harvey riffing with kids with special talents.
"I had all these little kids on, and that's where we got the idea. People love seeing these little kids that are precious and talented. Their personalities are great and Steve is so great with them," she says. And the show has been a surprise hit, averaging 11 million viewers this season.
"Ellen knows how to take stuff that's working on her show and make it into prime-time television," says Mike Darnell, who oversees alternative programming at Warner Bros. "Her brand is so strong that just her name associated with a product like Little Big Shots helps not only to sell it to the network but to the audience. You know it's going to be funny and great for the whole family."
To have DeGeneres, 59, host as well as produce on the six-episode Games, which tapes this summer, is "a miracle for us," he says.
Dates, narrated by 50 First Dates start Drew Barrymore, follows blind dates at a Chicago restaurant equipped with hidden cameras. The diverse group of couples reflect different ages, races, ethnicity and sexual orientations.
"It's what's great about the United States. It's a melting pot and we do have this diversity." she says. "I don't want to exclude anyone. So, whoever is looking for love is going to be part of the show."
The show features encounters - as when an older man seeks a new partner after losing a spouse - as well as head-scratchers, like a young woman who rejects an otherwise upstanding guy because he has a cat. At the end of the hour, the show provides updates about what happened to the couples after the cameras stopped rolling.
"Some of the dates that don't go well are hilarious to watch, but we didn't purposely put people together to make a train wreck," she says. "It's an old-fashioned concept of going on a blind date and watching the awkwardness." (Evenings out can be awkward for married people, too, as DeGeneres learned when she stumbled, dislocating her finger, after attending a recent dinner party with wife Portia de Rossi).
DeGeneres is pushing into scripted TV and film, too. She sold a comedy pilot to ABC (Splitting Up Together), about a couple whose marriage is "reignited" by their divorce, and is a producer of the film Jekyll and Netflix's upcoming animated Dr. Seuss comedy, Green Eggs and Ham.
She doesn't know of any plan for a follow-up to her star voiceover turn in last year's animated film sequel, Finding Dory - "It took 10 years for them to call me, so I'm not holding my breath for the next one."
DeGeneres helped shape Dates, and she credits her production team with overseeing the shows. It's not like she doesn't have a day job.
"The only reason I committed to hosting Game of Games is because that's not even work for me. What we are doing is pure joy and I get to play every single day. That's the only reason I'm going to do something during the summer instead of just laying down."