When hearing that a Rutgers University student flung himself off a bridge 2 ½ years ago after he was outed on the Internet as gay, Ellen DeGeneres felt a familiar pain.

"It was just breaking my heart," she recalled about the death of 18-year-old Tyler Clementi, who was distraught after his encounter with another man was revealed by a college roommate who had hidden a Webcam in their room. "I had to say something."

So she used the stage of her syndicated daytime talk show to speak out against bullying, read names of other gay teenagers who had committed suicide, then made an appeal to the scores of lonely kids who might be struggling with their identities: "Things will get easier, people's minds will change," she said, her voice breaking. Ever since, she has signed off each show with a simple plea to her audience: "Be kind to one another."

And though it wasn't premeditated, that tangible empathy has helped fuel DeGeneres' growing popularity on multiple platforms, almost as though she made compassion cool again on TV.

The comedian, who incited a riot in culture when she came out as gay 16 years ago on her ABC sitcom, has experienced a surge in popularity that has surprised many. Most TV shows lose their edge after five to seven years, and audiences drift away. But "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," now in its 10th year, is drawing its biggest audience ever. Its ratings among the important daytime demographic of women ages 25 to 54 have climbed 13 percent compared with last season.

DeGeneres also boasts the most-watched TV celebrity channel on YouTube, where clips from her show have been watched 1.7 billion times. She has 17 million followers on Twitter and, at age 55, she is the face of CoverGirl's bestselling line of makeup.

Walt Disney Co.'s Pixar is planning a sequel to its blockbuster film "Finding Nemo," starring DeGeneres, who will reprise the voice of the befuddled blue tang fish. The film will be called "Finding Dory."

DeGeneres' increased popularity can be attributed to several factors, television watchers say, including a softening of cultural attitudes and a growing fatigue among viewers for the coarse slap-downs and boundary-pushing behavior that has become a staple of daytime TV and reality shows. The departure of Oprah Winfrey left a gap for emotional fare in daytime television that DeGeneres' show has begun to fill.

The Internet, too, has become a potent tool to engage younger audiences, who delight in DeGeneres' goofball humor, her "oh, my goodness" charm and her message that it is OK to be yourself. People like DeGeneres because she's nice.

"Ellen is an antidote for the times," said Hilary Estey McLoughlin, president of Telepictures Productions, which produces the talk show. "She focuses on being kind to others in a bully culture."

DeGeneres' rise has helped modify Hollywood's perception of a leading lady, inspiring a wave of characters that are both offbeat and nice. On NBC's "Parks and Recreation," Amy Poehler plays a do-gooder city official. On CBS's "Mike & Molly," Melissa McCarthy is a sweet and tubby fourth-grade teacher. On ABC's "The Middle," klutzy teenager Sue brims with wide-eyed optimism.

"The Ellen DeGeneres Show" almost didn't make it to the air. A decade ago, Warner Bros. struggled to license the show to TV station groups around the country. Station chiefs worried that DeGeneres' humor would be "too dirty" for the middle-age homemakers who watch daytime TV, Warner executives said. Producers sent DeGeneres to do her stand-up routine for station executives to demonstrate that her comedy was tame.

"I don't know what they thought," she said. "That I would stand in front of a rainbow flag and play a heavy rotation of Melissa Etheridge, Indigo Girls and k.d. lang?"

Her talk show's audience has grown to 3.5 million viewers a day, including those watching digital video recorded playbacks, up from just more than 2 million in its inaugural season. "Judge Judy" and "Dr. Phil" continue to attract more viewers in daytime, but this season DeGeneres' show edged into a first-place tie with "Dr. Phil" in the preferred audience demographic.

DeGeneres' ratings also are up 10 percent among the more fickle crowd of women ages 18 to 34. At a time when broadcast networks are starved for viewers in prime time, daytime "comfort food" programming has experienced a ratings uptick this year.

DeGeneres has strongly outperformed a string of daytime challengers who have tried and failed to replace Winfrey, the longtime queen of television -- among them, CNN's Anderson Cooper, "Survivor" host Jeff Probst and former CBS News anchor Katie Couric.

DeGeneres' appeal spans generations. The Internet has given her global reach.

Recently, more than 3,000 fans braved 90-degree heat as they jammed an outdoor park in Sydney to welcome DeGeneres on her first visit to the country. She was accompanied by wife Portia de Rossi and her 82-year-old mother, Betty DeGeneres, who was an outspoken advocate of her daughter during the turbulent years.

Media reports said that one emotional fan lobbied DeGeneres and de Rossi to adopt her. "We were just saying we should adopt someone," DeGeneres said. "It's so easy for us." Feeling good, and feeling good about feeling good, are keys to the DeGeneres brand.

"Ellen's message of being yourself and being accepted for who you are really resonates with younger viewers," said Melanie Shreffler, an analyst with the marketing research group Smarty Pants. She said there is no stigma for gay people among younger viewers, another reason DeGeneres has become a role model. "She's willing to be offbeat and be a little dorky on camera. Her humor works because she is safe enough and just out-there enough."

DeGeneres' compassion, experts said, is a major part of her appeal. Ratings increased after the show began seeking people to help in the heartwarming "make a difference" segments that often provoke tears.

Recently, DeGeneres' advertisers donated $20,000 to pay down a fan's student loans, and the show flew a 7-year-old Idaho boy awaiting a heart transplant to Los Angeles so he could go to Disneyland.

DeGeneres said her experiences "added another layer of compassion to my humor." She was not prepared for the ridicule that followed her 1997 announcement that she was gay or ABC's cancellation of "Ellen" the following year.

"I felt like I was the exact same person, so I didn't understand how that bit of information on a sitcom caused such a big reaction," she said. "I had become the punch line. I had become the target of people's jokes, and it really hurt. I didn't want anyone else to feel that way."

The woman who staked her career on defying the norm now is in the fore of the mainstream.

Forbes calculated that she earned $55 million last year. A year ago, DeGeneres and de Rossi bought a $12 million beachfront home in Malibu previously owned by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. This past fall, she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

And a survey of more than 2,100 people by the Harris Poll determined she was America's favorite TV celebrity for 2012. "Ellen also tied with (Fox News Channel's) Bill O'Reilly as favorite TV personality among Republicans," said Regina Corso, a Harris Poll senior vice president. "That surprised us. We had to go back and double-check the data."

The star seemed a bit surprised, too. "Culture changes all the time, so I try not to analyze it too much," DeGeneres said. "My hope for the show is that it has nothing to do with anything other than making people feel good, that it would be a safe place where no one gets hurt."