During production of his final post-midnight show, Jimmy Kimmel’s studio audience waited patiently while he taped a string of promotional spots.
“Hey, Denver: You, me, now at 10:35. Let’s not be weird about this,” the host quipped to the camera in his Hollywood Boulevard studio.
“This will be good for us,” Kimmel said earnestly in another local station promo.
The message in each spot — whether “Jimmy Kimmel Live” is on at 11:35 p.m. in the East and West or earlier elsewhere — is that Kimmel will be playing in the same league as veterans Jay Leno and David Letterman, starting this week.
The message he delivered to a recent teleconference was equally concise: He won’t be changing his style for the move, pushing aside conventional wisdom that edgier late-night humor won’t play in Peoria or elsewhere before the clock strikes 12.
It’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” after all, that has given the world such brashly funny videos as the Matt Damon-Sarah Silverman musical romp with bleep-worthy lyrics.
“There’s this idea that you need to broaden the show or make it . . . more wholesome or something like that. And I think that’s a little bit out-of-date, that perception,” Kimmel told reporters. “I guess only time will tell,” he added, in his typically low-key delivery.
Just as with Kimmel’s promised approach to the most coveted time period in late-night, ABC is taking a bold step by swapping “Nightline” with his show. The news program, offering viewers a non-talk-show option, has been the period’s ratings leader.
But the network probably won’t be sweating the early returns, according to analyst Brad Adgate of Horizon Media. He says putting Kimmel into the pre-midnight pocket, when more viewers are still up and watching, is a strategy aimed at an inevitable future.
“Leno and Letterman aren’t going to be doing this forever,” Adgate said, and ABC gives Kimmel a head start on establishing himself by putting him on now.
“This is something you may scratch your head at now, but in five years from now he’s the incumbent and the leader” in the time period, the analyst said.
Long-term schemes, of course, don’t always pan out. Despite anointing Conan O’Brien as its new “Tonight” host five years before he made the move in 2009, NBC ended up with a mess on its hands that saw O’Brien bolt to TBS and Leno retake “Tonight” in 2010 after his short-lived prime-time series.
Whether Kimmel gets a jump on his opponents-to-be — with Jimmy Fallon the expected pick for “Tonight” — being the late-night ruler is a far different proposition than in Johnny Carson’s day. The “Tonight” institution, operating virtually unopposed, could average a nightly audience of as much as 15 million.
That’s unimaginable in today’s fragmented TV world. Leno claims the top talk-show spot with some 3.5 million average viewers, followed by Letterman on CBS with 2.8 million. “Jimmy Kimmel Live” was drawing under 2 million nightly viewers at 12:05 Eastern but, according to Nielsen Co. ratings, finished up 2012 with a 10-year viewership high.
The demographics also have changed, with more advertiser-favored young viewers gravitating to cable options such as Adult Swim or Comedy Central and increasingly likely to catch up online with the best moments of network late-night.
No love for Leno
But the 11:35 p.m. East-West sweet spot remains the prize, and Kimmel may have more than the desire to succeed in mind. While he’s a long-time admirer of Letterman, he’s taken sharp public jabs at Leno, including blaming him for O’Brien’s ill-fated tenure at “Tonight.”
So Kimmel is humble about competing directly with Letterman (calling him a “legend in broadcasting” who shouldn’t bat an eye at the prospect of new competition) but is throwing elbows at Leno, especially over the “Tonight” plan to get out ahead of “Jimmy Kimmel Live” by airing at 11:34 p.m. Eastern.
“Well, I think NBC has had a lot of success moving Jay Leno earlier so it makes perfect sense,” he said, dryly, referring to Leno’s short-lived prime-time stint. Kimmel dismissed the time-shifting as likely a brief “trick” to protect “Tonight” ratings, one that ultimately won’t matter.
“This really isn’t about the first month or about the first week or about the first night, it’s a long-term thing,” Kimmel told reporters. “If we do well the first week, I’m sure there will be a lot of press given to that. But what really matters is how you do in May, and that’s when we’ll really know . . . where we stand.”