Jimmy Kimmel to go head-to-head with Leno and Letterman

Jimmy Kimmel is excited about his show's move to an earlier time slot.
(Ricardo DeAratanha, Los Angeles Times)

Jay and Dave, you’ve been warned.

Following a flurry of rumors last week, ABC confirmed Tuesday that it will move “Jimmy Kimmel Live” earlier by a half-hour, to 11:35 p.m., starting Jan. 8. With his new time slot, ABC’s Kimmel is making a bid to shove aside the two elder statesman of late-night TV, Jay Leno and David Letterman.

“Jimmy Kimmel Live” will be in direct competition with NBC’s “Tonight Show With Jay Leno” andCBS’ “Late Show With David Letterman” for a three-way ratings brawl."Nightline” — the storied late-night news program that has survived attempts to demote or kill it for years — will start at 12:35 a.m. and also, starting March 1, get a new prime-time Friday newsmagazine.

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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.

Brad Adgate, an analyst for ad firm Horizon Media, said he found the move remarkable given that Kimmel has thrived in his post-midnight slot and that “Nightline” has been beating CBS and sometimes even NBC during the 11:35 to 12:05 slot.

“It’s a little surprising to move a top-rated show from its time period to one hour back, when TV usage is lower,” Adgate said. “This could spell the end of ‘Nightline,’ which is a shame.”

In any case, moving Kimmel highlights the generational wedge that will shake up late-night TV in the next few years. Kimmel is 44, while Letterman and Leno are both in their 60s.

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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.

Leno joked about the woes on Monday’s show. “As you may have heard, our parent company has downsized ‘The Tonight Show,’” he told viewers. “And we’ve been consistently No. 1 in the ratings. And if you know anything about our network, that kind of thing is frowned upon around here.”

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“Tonight’s” stumbles create an opening for Kimmel. “We’re growing in a time when that’s very difficult to do in network television,” he said. “The one and only reason ABC is doing this is because they feel they can make more money.”

There’s no love lost between Leno and Kimmel, who took pointed swipes at Leno for grabbing back the “Tonight” desk after O’Brien decamped for TBS following the NBC dispute. Although Letterman issued a statement Tuesday congratulating Kimmel, an NBC spokesman said neither Leno nor the network had any comment.

Kimmel still refuses to make nice. “Everything I said was the truth,” he said of Leno. “I still think he got off easy.”

Times staff writer Joe Flint contributed to this report.


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