EXCLUSIVE: “You can’t do a late night show until you’re 80 years old,” Jimmy Kimmel just joked to me about his Jimmy Kimmel Live moving from midnight to 11:35 PM weekdays starting January 8th. The ABC late night host is only 44 years old now – and that’s why the network is betting that Kimmel can attract younger eyeballs than Jay Leno, 62, and David Letterman, 65. ABC’s own venerable Nightline skews to older demographics as well. “ABC sees the future and thinks it makes sense to entrench ourselves at 11:35 PM now,” Kimmel explained. Anything about the show he might have to change by starting a 1/2 hour earlier? “Maybe cut back on the penis jokes.”
The move comes after a decade of slow build in awareness and ratings and on the heels of landing its first best series Emmy nomination. Kimmel told me that Disney/ABC bosses Bob Iger, Anne Sweeney, and Paul Lee made the decision to move him to 11:35 PM without his involvement. “Truth is it was such a secret operation. There was a lot of discussion without me. First, the decision was made on their part and then they went to the affiliates who embraced the idea enthusiastically. So did sales. Then they called my agent.”
When Kimmel heard the news, “I was shaking, not necessarily the shaker,” he said. But he understands that this move does shake up network’s late night. “We were able to entrench ourselves at midnight. Honestly, luck was involved. We flat out got lucky. Ultimately, when you look back at this stuff, we did get a chance to develop under the radar. Nobody had any idea what ratings we should or shouldn’t get because that midnight time slot didn’t exist. Just the act of being on the air every night was the best thing for us,” Kimmel analyzes. “It’s a rare situation where patience pays off – and also the fact that no one was paying attention.”
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So what might be a good ratings number come the fall when, for the first time, 3 late night network hosts go head-to-head-to-head? “Ultimately, a good number for ABC is if they’re making money. There are other factors besides ratings, like integrations, to make money. But we don’t know how three shows on at 11:35 will score except I do know our ratings will go up from midnight.” Kimmel admits he’s “a little scared” right now at the prospect of competing with veterans The Tonight Show With Jay Leno and The Late Show With David Letterman. “Not so much for me but because a lot of people are working for me. It’s a lot of responsibility. The truth is we could have continued indefinitely at midnight. If this experiment doesn’t work out, it will be a burden here. But maybe we’ll get a pleasant surprise.”
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