Jimmy Kimmel Pitted Against “Letterman” and “Leno” Could Be Changing Of Guard

ABC has decided to put their horse in the race; the late night talk show race that is. On Tuesday the network confirmed that they will move “Jimmy Kimmel Live” to an earlier 11:35 p.m. time slot thereby pitting him up against Jay Leno and David Letterman. The move is a risk ABC is taking because Kimmel’s show has seen an increase in his audience that they believe could mean the soil is ready for a changing of the Guard.

The programming change, to take effect on Jan. 8, comes at a time when audiences for both Mr. Leno and Mr. Letterman have been declining amid growing competition from late-night shows on cable. By contrast, ratings for Mr. Kimmel’s show are rising.

Just last Friday, NBC laid off about two dozen staffers at “The Tonight Show” to reduce its costs. Mr. Leno took a pay cut to save further jobs.

As part of the ABC shift, “Nightline,” the network’s decades-old nightly news show is being moved later in the evening to 12:35 a.m. Starting next March, however it will receive a prime-time slot on Friday nights at 9 p.m.

In 2002, ABC pulled out every stop to lure David Letterman away from CBS, offering him the time period occupied by its news program “Nightline.” The network failed, and soon after inserted a new late-night host, Jimmy Kimmel, in the hour after “Nightline.”

In 2008, ABC aggressively pursued Jay Leno, who was about to be displaced at NBC’s “Tonight” show by Conan O’Brien, looking to give Mr. Leno the same slot still owned by “Nightline.” Mr. Leno decided instead to try his ill-fated prime-time show on NBC. ABC stuck with Jimmy Kimmel.

Now, the network has decided that it finally has the man to take on both Mr. Leno and Mr. Letterman: Jimmy Kimmel.

“It’s an opportunistic move for us,” said Disney/ABC Television Group president Anne Sweeney, who noted Mr. Kimmel’s massive appeal on social media and YouTube, where his video channel has racked up 662 million views. “This is Jimmy’s moment,” said Ms. Sweeney. “We’ve seen this guy is the zeitgeist.”

The realignment is the latest sign of a generational change under way in late night. The big names in the time slot are aging—Mr. Leno is 62 and Mr. Letterman is 65. A host of younger comics have become bigger names in recent years, including Mr. Kimmel, who is 44, Conan O’ Brien, 49, and Jimmy Fallon, 37.

Despite the time switch, Kimmel’s program is expected to keep its format largely intact, which means that now three broadcast shows will air within the same hour, competing for celebrity guests and cherry-picking the day’s headlines for monologue jokes. Late-night TV — which 20 years ago saw the exit of its undisputed king, Johnny Carson — has thus completed its transformation into a grinding back-and-forth battle, much like the morning race between NBC’s”Today”and its runner-up, ABC’s”Good Morning America.”

Kimmel seemed to regard the promotion with his characteristic laid-back irony. “I’m still sitting at the same desk,” the host joked in an interview Tuesday. “They haven’t covered it in gold or anything.

“It’s exciting, but it’s also nerve-wracking,” Kimmel added, noting that the earlier time slot “is a risk. Moving is something that I had mixed feelings about.”

But he added: “I think it’s necessary for the show to move forward. You just have a bigger audience. It makes it easier to book guests, because you have more people watching…. The show has more horsepower when it’s on at 11:35 p.m.”

The timing of the move may seem odd, given that Kimmel’s hosting of the Emmy Awards next month would have given ABC a natural promotional platform for the switch. However, ABC executives felt that making a change during the busy presidential election season — when stations rake in huge amounts from political ads — would have been disruptive.

Instead, the network will use Ryan Seacrest’s New Year’s program as well as “Dancing With the Stars” and the Bowl Championship Series on sister network ESPN to tell viewers about the switch.

While Mr. Kimmel didn’t want to get into details about his new contract, he said his salary was “probably less than Mavis Leno’s salary,” referring to Mr. Leno’s wife.

Mentioning that a lot of good things have happened to him this year, including a recent engagement mentioned on the show, Mr. Kimmel joked, “something terrible will happen I’m sure.”

Kimmel is still a distant No. 3 in the ratings, averaging 1.8 million viewers this season, according to Nielsen. “Tonight” leads with 3.7 million, while “Late Show” averages 3.1 million. Kimmel’s post-midnight start partly explains his lower ratings.

But the trends are moving in ABC’s favor. Kimmel’s show has seen ratings improvement in recent months, while Leno in particular has experienced a slump after NBC made a brief and disastrous experiment withConan O’Brienin the “Tonight” slot several seasons back. Once a cash cow for NBC, “Tonight” last week laid off some staffers and Leno took a pay cut to prevent further departures.

Nobody is sure what the move might produce, however, ABC is banking on youth to produce the kind of number to give Jimmy Kimmel Live a respectable chance to overcome the two late night sultans.

 

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