News Column

Jimmy Kimmel Hits Primetime Spot

Jan 7, 2013

Ten years after ABC began making trouble when it tried to pinch late-night stars from CBS and NBC to replace "Nightline," the network finally will move homegrown talent Jimmy Kimmel into the time slot Tuesday.

When Kimmel takes his spot at 11:35 p.m., he'll take on two towering figures - and the two men ABC tried to steal within the past decade: CBS's David Letterman and NBC's Jay Leno.

For ABC suits who've long thought they could make more money in the time period with entertainment programming rather than news, it's the culmination of a dream of breaking into the late-night talk-show big league.

But that's a blink of an eye compared with the 30-some years Kimmel has been working his way toward Tuesday.

"I know moving from midnight to 11:35 might not sound like a big deal - it's only 25 minutes - but it's probably the most important 25 minutes of my life, since the first 14 times I had sex," Kimmel, 45, told his audience in August, on the day ABC announced "Jimmy Kimmel Live's" promotion.

Leno and Letterman, meanwhile, have reacted in different ways.

Leno's starting his show one minute earlier - at 11:34 p.m. - during Kimmel's first week in the earlier start time, in hopes of getting a jump on his new competition.

Letterman, on the other hand, paid a visit to Kimmel's show in the days leading up to the promotion to wish him the best.

On Tuesday, "JKL" will have a shiny new set but will still be located at the El Capitan Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, the perfect backdrop for Kimmel's popular man-on-the-street video bits.

A handful of features have been added to the rotation in the weeks leading up to the show's return from holiday break. Other than that, Kimmel says, they will be "pretty much doing the same show that we've been doing."

In his new time slot, Kimmel's taking on two guys in their 60s with a couple of years left on what could be their final contracts.

Both "Leno" and "Letterman" are trending down ratings-wise. Less than a decade ago, Letterman was attracting more than 7 million viewers and Leno more than 5 million. This season to date, Letterman's averaging about 3.1 million viewers, and Leno 3.6 million.

Meanwhile, Kimmel's been averaging about 2 million viewers - his biggest-ever audience through this point in any of his seasons.

Kimmel said recently that he does not expect to beat Leno or Letterman when he moves to 11:35 but does expect his numbers to go up substantially, if only for the reason that a lot more people are watching TV then than at midnight.

The shadow of Letterman looms large, as Kimmel has made a career of obsessing over his idol.

"JKL" executive producer Jill Leiderman who, not coincidentally, was a producer for Letterman, says the two men have a lot in common.

"Thoroughbred" is how she describes them, saying that they are creatures of habit, have "excellent work ethic." Both men "engender tremendous loyalty among their staff," she said.

When Letterman visited "JKL" recently, out came the photos of his old L8 NITE license plate and a childhood birthday "Late Night" sheet cake.

"It might be pathetic to say, but it was probably one of the most meaningful moments of my life," Kimmel said of Letterman's first visit.

Part and parcel with idolizing Letterman comes hating Leno, though Letterman last month told journalist Charlie Rose that the period of his life when he was lashing out at losing "Tonight" to Leno was "some of the worst behavior of my life."

Kimmel's not listening.

"Everyone is better than Leno," he told New York magazine recently as part of his walk-up to his new time slot.

But when asked how he can position himself to take down Letterman in the ratings, Kimmel's got a ready answer:

"It's like if Nolan Ryan is pitching to you. You still have to try to hit the ball, no matter how many baseball cards you might have in your bedroom or posters of him on the wall."



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