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Ellen DeGeneres: The real American Idol

Juggling her talk-show and new ”American Idol” duties may make her the most popular woman on television

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A few weeks before Ellen DeGeneres started moonlighting as the fourth judge on American Idol, EW asked her how her new gig would affect her daily schedule. ”We’ll tape my talk show earlier in the day instead of at the end of the day, and then I’ll hop in a car and rush over and go to that show,” she explained.

”You’re going to be really, really grumpy,” piped in fellow Idol panelist Simon Cowell, who was listening in on the conversation.

”I’m so entertaining when I’m grumpy,” she shot back.

Turns out she’s right. Though skeptics claimed DeGeneres’ lack of music-biz experience made her unqualified for a seat at the judges’ table, the comedian’s first appearances during Idol‘s Hollywood Week have been a smash hit with critics and audiences alike. Her mix of playful banter and serious criticism (”That was crazy, I think…in a bad way”) helped the show’s ratings surge 12 percent from the previous week (also a 2 percent increase from last year’s Hollywood Week episodes). And the day after DeGeneres’ Feb. 9 Idol debut, NBC announced that it’s renewing her eponymous talk show — which has also seen a ratings spike since she started on Idol — through 2014, guaranteeing her a choice time slot in most of the major markets. What does that all mean? With Oprah Winfrey ending her syndicated program next year, DeGeneres, 52, could soon end up fronting the biggest daytime and prime-time programs on television.

That’s correct — the woman whose ABC sitcom was dumped in 1998 and who could hardly find work a decade ago has become the Queen of All Media. It’s a throne she’s reached by slowly building her fan base. ”She’s really been the cornerstone of our daytime lineup,” says NBC Local Media Group president John Wallace, who stepped up negotiations with The Ellen DeGeneres Show even though their contract wasn’t set to expire until next year. ”And her success on Idol underscores how her skills translate to prime time. Especially post-Oprah, her base is only going to grow.”

So is her workload. Next year she’ll spend weeks traveling to the audition cities. But those close to DeGeneres say she’s happy to put in the overtime. ”After Hollywood Week, she realizes she has a lot of work,” says Telepictures Productions president Hilary Estey McLoughlin, who hired DeGeneres as a daytime host in 2006. ”But it’s energized her.” DeGeneres herself made light of her soon-to-be-hectic schedule when we spoke to her: ”I was thinking about buying one of those condos next door to the CBS stage [where Idol films],” she joked. ”They’re close to Whole Foods!”

With her talk-show and Idol contracts now signed, DeGeneres’ fans can look forward to five more years of her singular charm — sometimes twice a day. ”Ellen’s in a great place in her life,” says McLoughlin. ”She’s really happy personally [with her wife of 18 months, Portia de Rossi]. And I think that’s reflected in her work. She’s on a roll, and we’re happy to be on the roll with her.” Aren’t we all.

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