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Late-night talk host Jimmy Kimmel. (RANDY TEPPER/Associated Press)
Late-night talk host Jimmy Kimmel. (RANDY TEPPER/Associated Press)

Late-night TV heats up: How Jimmy Kimmel could dethrone Leno and Letterman Add to ...

After toppling NBC’s Today show in the morning show ratings for overall viewers for the first time in 16 years, ABC is now taking aim at NBC’s iconic Tonight Show franchise.

The network, owned by the Walt Disney Co, launches on Tuesday evening its most ambitious – and riskiest – effort to grab a slice of television’s late-night audience, moving Jimmy Kimmel Live to the 11:35 p.m. time slot and displacing the hour’s top-rated show, news program Nightline.

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Pushing Kimmel’s show to 11:35 p.m. from its usual midnight airing puts the popular and pudgy young host in direct competition with Jay Leno’s Tonight Show on NBC and The Late Show with David Letterman on CBS Corp, not to mention Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report, hosted by Stephen Colbert.

Moving Kimmel earlier may help ABC capitalize on both advertiser demand for entertainment programming and provide a boost to its prime time schedule. Late-night shows, like morning news programs, are among the most profitable for networks because they cost less to produce. Their ratings are also steadier than prime time shows because there are fewer repeats.

The network calculus goes like this: Advertisers will pay higher rates for entertainment shows at that hour compared with news programs. Plus, more regular Kimmel viewers means more people will see promotions for ABC’s prime-time slate, driving a bigger audience there and potentially boosting the network’s overall financial performance.

According to Jason Maltby, lead TV ad buyer at media buying firm Mindshare, late-night is one of “two areas where (ABC) can make more money.” The other is early morning, where its Good Morning America has usurped NBC’s Today show in ratings.

The Tonight Show with Jay Leno currently leads the late-night broadcast comedy race with 3.4 million viewers on average, according to Nielsen. The Late Show with David Letterman pulls in 3.0 million, while Jimmy Kimmel Live grabs 1.9 million.

In 2011, companies spent $425.8 million to advertise during Leno, Letterman or Kimmel, according to the most recent yearly data from Kantar Media. Leno’s show led the pack, grabbing $160.8 million. Letterman brought in $157.4 million, while Kimmel earned $107.7 million. The Colbert Report, which runs for 30 minutes starting at 11:30 p.m., collected $41 million.

Nightline, the 33-year-old newscast that began as a daily update during the 1980 Iran hostage crisis, actually draws more viewers than all of its entertainment-focused late-night competition, averaging 3.9 million viewers nightly. The 30-minute Nightline will move to 12:35 a.m. and also will air in a new one-hour prime time slot on Fridays.

Although “Nightline” attracts more viewers than “Kimmel,” ABC says switching the two shows will allow it to secure higher ad rates because advertisers prefer an entertainment audience over a news audience at 11:35 p.m.

At 45, Kimmel is two decades younger than Leno, 62, and Letterman, 65. ABC believes that fact coupled with his younger, tech-savvy audience will make his show more appealing to advertisers. The network’s marketing blitz features ads with the tagline: “Younger. Smarter. Funnier. Earlier.” Kimmel has been making the media interview rounds and exposed his butt crack for a Rolling Stone magazine cover story.

“Jimmy attracts a really fantastic demo,” ABC Entertainment President Paul Lee said in an interview. “He will start to make the audience younger and, because it is entertainment, he will bring in higher CPMs.”

Maltby agrees, saying Kimmel’s show gives ABC “the opportunity to get a larger audience, which means more revenue.”

Kimmel is kicking off the time shift with big-name guests, including Jennifer Aniston and Ryan Gosling. The comedian said he will continue to experiment with new segments on his show, but he does not plan any changes based on the earlier start.

“It will pretty much be the same show that we’ve been doing,” he told reporters during a Dec. 19 conference call.

This week, ABC will highlight upcoming mid-season shows in front of reporters at a Television Critics Association meeting. They include drama Zero Hour starring Anthony Edwards and Red Widow, about a woman who hunts for the truth behind her husband’s death.

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