A daytime institution and television ratings juggernaut approaching its 17-year anniversary in September, The Ellen Degeneres Show is now facing a PR nightmare as a result of a Buzzfeed News story which dropped early today alleging “sexual harassment and misconduct by top executive producers runs rampant.”
Singled out for his actions is Executive Producer and Head Writer Kevin Lehman, who has been with the show from the beginning, having started as a Production Assistant.
The Buzzfeed story reports:
One ex-employee said head writer and executive producer Kevin Leman asked him if he could give him a hand job or perform oral sex in a bathroom at a company party in 2013. Another said they separately saw Leman grab a production assistant’s penis.
In May 2017, another former employee also said she saw Leman grope a production assistant in a car and kiss his neck.
Nearly a dozen former employees, who range from longtime, senior-level employees to production assistants, said it was also common for Leman to make sexually explicit comments in the office, like pointing out male colleagues’ bulges in their crotches, or ask them questions like, “Are you a top or a bottom?”
“It’s masked in sarcasm, but it’s not sarcasm,” a former employee said.
Many of his targets, employees added, were lower-level and younger employees who felt they lacked any power to speak up.
“He’d probably do it in front of 10 people and they’d laugh because ‘it’s just Kevin being Kevin,’ but if you’re in a position of power at a company, you don’t just get to touch me like that,” a former employee said.
While there have certainly been instances of allegations of homosexual misconduct that have come in the aftermath of the sudden “awakening” of Hollywood to sexual harassment and sexual predation following the takedown of Harvey Weinstein and the rise of the “MeToo” phenomenon which put household names and faces with Hollywood’s “casting couch” history, this report will likely rock a show that is an institution in the substantial gay subculture of the Hollywood entertainment industry. But it’s not just that the target of the story makes the report compelling, it seems to be incredibly well-sourced as these kinds of stories go. We are not talking about just a couple of individuals voicing complaints. Based on Buzzfeed’s description, a plaintiff’s attorney could line up a parade of witnesses that would go out the courtroom doors and well down the hallway as they lined up to testify:
BuzzFeed News spoke to 36 former employees, many of whom independently corroborated incidents of harassment, sexual misconduct, and assault from top producers like Leman. All of the ex-employees, many of whom had voluntarily left the show, asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution.
Not only does this make it likely that the story will have “legs” and is likely to be picked up and pursued by other news organizations — where is Ronan Farrow today?? — but the Buzzfeed story confirms that Warner Brothers has known about this for some time, and has been conducting an investigation into the allegations.
Warner Bros. declined to comment on specific allegations, citing an ongoing internal investigation that was launched after an earlier BuzzFeed News report in which current and former employees said they faced racism, fear, and intimidation at work.
But in a statement on Thursday, the studio said it “hoped to determine the validity and extent of publicly reported allegations and to understand the full breadth of the show’s day-to-day culture.”
“It was important to both Warner Bros. and Ellen that as many people as possible attached to the program could be heard,” Warner Bros. added. “The Ellen DeGeneres Show is, and has always strived to be, a place that brings positivity to the world. And though not all of the allegations were corroborated, we are disappointed that the primary findings of the investigation indicated some deficiencies related to the show’s day-to-day management.
“We have identified several staffing changes, along with appropriate measures to address the issues that have been raised, and are taking the first steps to implement them.”
There is quite a lot in those few sentences. But first note that the statement was issued on Thursday, very likely prompted by an inquiry from Buzzfeed asking if Warners had any comments to make with regard to the story that Buzzfeed was planning to drop in the very early morning hours today.
Warners confirms it has an ongoing investigation that originated as an inquiry into allegations of “racism, fear, and intimidation at work.” Sexual harassment seems to have been added to the menu later.
It also labels the issues as part of the show’s “day-to-day culture.” That does not sound like isolated instances of misconduct by a wayward manager or two.
And they have apparently confirmed that enough of the allegations are true to begin to take steps towards making staffing changes, though they don’t identify any particular individuals they have determined to have been guilty of workplace misconduct.
Warners also released a letter written by Ellen Degeneres to all show employees on Thursday and Buzzfeed obtained a copy:
In a letter to staff that was obtained by BuzzFeed News, DeGeneres on Thursday apologized, saying that from its inception, the show was supposed to be a place of “happiness” where “everyone would be treated with respect.”
“Obviously, something changed, and I am disappointed to learn that this has not been the case. And for that, I am sorry. Anyone who knows me knows it’s the opposite of what I believe and what I hoped for our show,” she wrote.
But straight Executive Producers on the show were equally predatory towards young female staffers.
Among the many allegations brought to BuzzFeed News, five former employees said executive producer Ed Glavin touched them in a way that made them uncomfortable by rubbing their shoulders and back, as well as placing his hand around their lower waist.
Dozens of former employees also said Glavin “had a reputation for being handsy with women,” especially in the control room, and managed the team through fear and intimidation.
“You could definitely see the creep factor and the creepy touching. That was out in the open for everybody to see,” one former employee, who said Glavin regularly touched her in the control room, told BuzzFeed News. “Obviously, no one wants that and no one wants to be uncomfortably touched by someone … but you didn’t want to piss them off or you would be fired, so it was just that culture of fear.”
Another former employee said Glavin would call over producers and assistants to sit near him when the show was filming segments they had worked on and, in front of nearly 30 other people in the control room, would touch them inappropriately.
“Even though I was being abused [at work] constantly, Ed putting his arm around you in the control room was like the nicest experience you had all day, as messed up as that sounds,” she said. “But you had been crying last night and now your segment is going well … and then you feel like you got credit for something from the executive producer directly. … That friendly banter accompanied by a friendly hand.”
Gavin had a private shower in his office that employees would pass by on the way to his desk, and he would “openly” take showers during the day and attend meetings with his hair still wet. The article doesn’t allege any specific instances of Gavin using the shower while other employees were in his office.
The description of events and circumstances of those subjected to harassment are textbook “grooming” by older adults preying on youthful staffers just breaking into the industry.
“We’re young people who were forming our careers and were unfortunately subjected to a toxic work environment as some of our first jobs out of college,” the former employee said. “And some of us were sexually harassed and that’s what was shaping our careers our first year out of school.”
Filing a lawsuit against a powerful institution in Hollywood like The Ellen Degeneres Show is probably a career-killer. But if some of the allegations are true, and the lack of institutional control within the show’s production and administration is also true, substantial problems could still lie ahead.
Adding to the void of accountability, former employees said there was no formal process to confidentially file complaints, and that senior-level producers pressured them not to go to HR at the show’s parent company.
“There was no such thing as a confidential conversation,” a former employee said. “There was no clear direction that if something happens to you, you go to this person, it will remain confidential, and you will not be retaliated against.”
In her letter to the staff, Degeneres confirmed that problems exist — which in the context in which she issued the letter can be nothing less than a confirmation that the allegations in the story have a basis in fact. She also stated that changes are being made to the management of the show.
“My name is on the show and everything we do and I take responsibility for that.”
“As we’ve grown exponentially, I’ve not been able to stay on top of everything and relied on others to do their jobs as they knew I’d want them done. Clearly some didn’t,” she added. “That will now change and I’m committed to ensuring this does not happen again.”
But not all connected to the show are buying her claim of “innocence.”
“For someone who’s so involved in the show and the creative aspect, and having been in those meetings with her, it’s very hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that she doesn’t hear the same whispers,” one former employee who worked closely with DeGeneres said. “Unless she really is just in this bubble.”
Another longtime former employee who also worked with DeGeneres said the talk show host “doesn’t want to know” about what goes on behind the scenes, and “nobody wants to rock the boat” because she is essentially the show’s brand.
“She knows,” the former employee said. “She knows shit goes on, but also she doesn’t want to hear it.”
“I’m committed to ensuring this does not happen again.”
If I was a lawyer representing any of the harassed employees in a trial involving these allegations, I’d probably start my Opening Statement with those words.