WALNUT CREEK, Calif. – In a long-overdue move, ABC next week will shift “Jimmy Kimmel Live” from midnight to 11:35 p.m., where the show’s host will go head-to-head with David Letterman and Jay Leno. It’s a strategy that comes laced with a delicious bit of irony.
In 2002, ABC made an all-out bid to lure Letterman away from CBS, offering him the time period occupied by the news program “Nightline.” Shortly after Letterman turned down the offer, ABC introduced Kimmel in the post-“Nightline” hour to relatively little fanfare.
Six years later, ABC aggressively wooed Leno, who was about to be replaced at NBC by Conan O’Brien – again offering the “Nightline” slot. But Leno instead tried an ill-fated prime-time show, before reclaiming the “Tonight Show” desk.
Now, ABC is counting on Kimmel to deliver a ratings blow to both Leno and Letterman. Starting Tuesday, “Nightline” will air an hour later, allowing Kimmel to finally meet the late-night heavy-hitters on their own turf and eliminate the head start they’ve long enjoyed.
It doesn’t sound like much: Only a measly 25 minutes. But for Kimmel, the new start time is significant.
“The big deal is that, for some reason, people go to sleep at midnight. You lose a lot of people at that time,” he said during a recent conference call. “So the audience is much bigger. There are a lot more people up watching television at 11:35 than there are at midnight. It’s as simple as that.”
Don’t expect to see major changes because of the earlier start. The perception that the show needs to “broaden” or become “more wholesome” is a “little bit out of date,” said Kimmel, who will welcome Jennifer Aniston and the rock band No Doubt as his guests Tuesday.
Still, the move isn’t without some risk for ABC. “Nightline,” after all, actually has been beating Leno and Letterman in the ratings and will most certainly lose some steam when it airs an hour later. Meanwhile, the audience for “Jimmy Kimmel Live” (about 1.8 million viewers) is substantially smaller than that of “Nightline” (3.8 million).
Then again, it does makes financial sense. Advertisers generally pay more for an entertainment show – and for younger viewers in the highly coveted 18-to-49 demographic. At 44, Kimmel is younger – and edgier – than Leno and Letterman, both of whom are in their 60s. And it’s no coincidence that the time shift comes at a time when Kimmel’s audience is steadily growing while his rivals’ ratings are slipping.
Kimmel, in fact, has seen his star steadily rise over the past few years. There was that well-received hosting gig at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. This past fall, he hosted the Emmy Awards for the first time and earned his first Emmy nomination for best variety show. In addition, his hilarious viral videos have gained widespread attention.
He may not be the most-watched late-night funny guy, but he’s certainly the hottest.
Nevertheless, Kimmel admits it will be a “little strange” taking on Letterman, who long has been his television idol. On the other hand, if “Nolan Ryan is pitching to you, you still have to try to hit the ball,” he said, “no matter how many baseball cards you have (of him) in your bedroom, or posters on the wall.”