Can Jimmy Kimmel make late-night comedy profitable again? The U.S. networks have been dealing for years with the loss of viewers for their talk shows, and the lower profits that go with it: NBC’s The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, the most-watched talk show on television, was forced to accept major budget cuts and layoffs in order to stay on the air (“NBC stands for Nothing But Cutbacks,” Leno told his audience). But shortly after Leno’s downsizing, the ABC network decided to go in the opposite direction, moving Jimmy Kimmel Live—which isn’t actually live—from midnight to 11:35, putting the former Win Ben Stein’s Money sidekick in direct competition with the other networks for the first time.
This move may not reflect a new confidence in comedy so much as a collapse of confidence in another genre: news. Kimmel replaces the newsmagazine show Nightline (which will move to 12:35), even though Nightline recently averaged 3.9 million viewers to Leno’s 3.7 million. Like most news shows, its viewership is too old to attract advertisers: the Los Angeles Times reported that Nightline made only $40.2 million in ad revenue last year (compared to more than $150 million each for Leno and David Letterman). ABC “can charge more for Kimmel,” media analyst David Campanelli told E!. “As an entertainment show, it’s more desired.” ABC cited “increased revenue potential” in giving the slot to Kimmel, though it gave Nightline the consolation prize of a special prime-time hour—on Friday, when nobody’s watching.
Handing Kimmel the more competitive time slot may also be a long-term move. Kimmel is one of the few hosts whose audience has grown in the last few years, if only slightly. With media speculation building about when Leno and Letterman will retire, Kimmel could soon find himself facing younger, less established personalities like Jimmy Fallon. “ABC looks at the show now and can imagine putting it on against the big guys,” Kimmel told Variety. But in a few years, Kimmel himself might be the big guy.