Kim­mel gets fight­ing chance in late-night war

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - By Scott Collins

LOS AN­GE­LES — The noisy green room of Jimmy Kim­mel’s talk show in Hol­ly­wood was crawl­ing with the show’s 30-some­thing writ­ers, who stole oc­ca­sional glances at the mon­i­tors as the 45-year-old comic joked with a woman in the stu­dio au­di­ence.

A few min­utes later, Kim­mel’s former in­tern Car­son Daly, now a friendly ri­val in the late-night TV wars, swung by for an on-cam­era visit. With ABC mov­ing Jimmy Kim­mel Live to a 10:35 p.m. time slot next week, dis­plac­ing the ven­er­a­ble Night­line, Daly of­fered his host a pre­dic­tion: “Now you’re go­ing to be­come prob­a­bly the most pow­er­ful man in tele­vi­sion.”

ABC can only hope. The Dis­ney­owned net­work and its ri­vals NBC and CBS are look­ing to win over the next gen­er­a­tion of late-night TV view­ers, and by mov­ing Kim­mel now, ABC is look­ing to put its man in the pole po­si­tion.

For NBC’s Jay Leno and David Let­ter­man of CBS, the fi­nal sign-off is draw­ing nearer. Both are 60-some­thing baby boomers who picked up the torch of NBC’s Johnny Car­son, whose Tonight Show ruled over late night for sev­eral decades.

But the type of talk show Car­son presided over — a splashy party with a long mono­logue, skits and a big band — is slowly get­ting down­sized. Think of Com­edy Cen­tral’s Daily Show With Jon Ste­wart and The Col­bert Report, which have be­come smash suc­cesses with a host and stripped-down com­edy bits.

Late night’s new par­a­digm, ex­perts say, is tech-savvy, younger-skew­ing and much cheaper. That fits an age in which many view­ers are for­go­ing watch­ing an en­tire pro­gram at its sched­uled time, opt­ing in­stead to watch a few min­utes on their phones or tablets the next day

With his fre­quent YouTube videos, ragged skits fea­tur­ing fam­ily mem­bers and in­ter­ac­tive stunts such as tongue-in-cheek Na­tional Face­book Un­friend Day, Kim­mel’s show is tai­lored for this new era.

Although late night isn’t the gold mine it once was, the fi­nan­cial stakes for ABC and the other broad­cast net­works re­main sig­nif­i­cant — more than a half-bil­lion dol­lars in an­nual ad rev­enues are in play, ac­cord­ing to Jon Swallen, chief re­search of­fi­cer at Kan­tar Me­dia, an ad-track­ing and con­sult­ing firm.

The pro­grams are also vi­tal pis­tons in the high-revving Hol­ly­wood PR ma­chine. They func­tion as breezy, invit­ing plat­forms for net­works to pro­mote their own sched­ules and stars. And of­ten the late-night perch be­stows a “halo ef­fect” upon their front­men, who are tapped to host pres­tige awards shows.

Kim­mel, a baby-faced comic veteran with a doughy body and a slightly world-weary de­meanor, has been pro­moted with in­creas­ing fer­vour by ABC. Per­haps not co­in­ci­den­tally, he’s also taken on a higher pro­file — host­ing the White House Cor­re­spon­dents’ Din­ner in April and the Prime­time Emmy Awards in Septem­ber.

Kim­mel is try­ing to take the pro­mo­tion in stride, ad­mit­ting that it’s a lot eas­ier to be­come a late-night star than it was when his idol Let­ter­man crashed into the pop cul­ture fir­ma­ment 30 years ago with Stupid Pet Tricks and other in­ver­sions of typ­i­cal talk-show fare.

“The re­al­ity is, I wouldn’t be on if the late-night land­scape wasn’t crowded,” Kim­mel said be­fore re­hearsal at his stu­dio re­cently. “I’m glad it’s crowded. I’d be sit­ting home watch­ing it on tele­vi­sion if it weren’t.”

The bosses haven’t pres­sured him to tone down his ma­te­rial for the ear­lier time pe­riod. “They said, ‘We want you to just do what you’re do­ing,’” he said. “I was very happy to hear that.”

Kim­mel’s rat­ings are vir­tu­ally as­sured an in­crease. Ap­prox­i­mately 15 per cent more view­ers have their TV sets turned on at 10:35 p.m. than at 11:05 p.m., when Kim­mel’s show starts now. He will need ev­ery viewer he can get, since Jimmy Kim­mel Live cur­rently av­er­ages 1.9 mil­lion to­tal view­ers, ac­cord­ing to Nielsen.

That’s only a lit­tle more than half what Tonight gets. Let­ter­man’s Late Show de­liv­ers 3.1 mil­lion. (Former Tonight Show host Co­nan O’Brien draws about one mil­lion nightly view­ers for his show on TBS).

Robert J. Thompson, who runs the Bleier Cen­ter for Tele­vi­sion and Pop­u­lar Cul­ture at Syra­cuse Univer­sity, sees Kim­mel’s time switch as era-defin­ing.

“If he can com­pete in that pe­riod, I think that could com­pletely change and fi­nally so­lid­ify the idea that while Tonight Show has got this long legacy and peo­ple like Let­ter­man and Co­nan so much re­vere it, the fact is the Tonight Show might not any longer be the holy grail of tele­vi­sion.”

He added: “I’m not even sure it’s the holy grail now, to be hon­est.”

Cer­tainly, “Tonight” isn’t throw­ing off the cash it used to. But gold mines have grown scarce in late-night TV over­all, as com­pe­ti­tion and low­ered rat­ings take their toll.

Tonight de­liv­ered a re­ported $100 mil­lion to NBC’s bot­tom line dur­ing the show’s 1990s hey­day, but TV veter­ans say the show is barely prof­itable now. And most com­peti­tors are in sim­i­lar straits.

Last sum­mer, NBC forced lay­offs at Tonight for only the sec­ond time in the show’s nearly 60-year his­tory. NBC ex­ec­u­tives de­clined to com­ment on re­ports that they are look­ing to jet­ti­son Leno as early as 2014 and re­place him with Jimmy Fal­lon, cur­rently the host of the net­work’s 11:35 p.m. show.

Re­gard­less of how that plays out, the head-to-head-to head-com­pe­ti­tion of­fers a chance for some back­stage drama as well.

Re­la­tions be­tween Let­ter­man and Leno have been frosty ever since NBC picked Leno to suc­ceed Car­son, lead­ing Let­ter­man to bolt for CBS. But Kim­mel is a hard-core fan of Let­ter­man, an el­der fig­ure who has re­turned the kind words in in­ter­views. Let­ter­man ap­peared as a guest on Kim­mel’s show late last year when it was broad­cast from the Brook­lyn Academy of Mu­sic for a week.

“For David Let­ter­man’s sec­ond-year an­niver­sary on NBC, I drew pic­tures of him on but­tons for ev­ery­one that came to the an­niver­sary party I had at my house,” Kim­mel re­cently en­thused to re­porters.

But Kim­mel has ex­tended no such good­will to­ward Leno, who has be­come some­thing of a vil­lain in TV cir­cles af­ter he re­turned to Tonight fol­low­ing an ill-fated prime-time show a few sea­sons back. Leno’s re­turn meant the end of O’Brien as host — a ten­ure that lasted less than a year.

“Jay Leno is not go­ing to be able to stay on tele­vi­sion for­ever,” Kim­mel said. “But, you know, with that said, never count Jay out. He’s like Ja­son in Fri­day the 13th. He seems to pop up just when you think he’s dead. He comes back to life and he’s got a hatchet.”


Kim­mel (above) is mov­ing into ABC’s 10:35 p.m. time slot, go­ing up against late-night guardians Let­ter­man (top) and Leno.


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