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Kimmel gets fighting chance in late-night war

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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 Disney-owned 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."

-- Los Angeles Times

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 5, 2013 G6

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