It’s a story that’s been on our radar ever since ABC announced back in August that Jimmy Kimmel will be moving his late-night show into direct competition with Jay Leno and David Letterman on Jan. 8.
And now, the moment is almost here. And it’s coming early enough in the new year for us to feel confident in predicting that the move and its consequences will form the basis for the first big TV story (or stories) of 2013 (barring any huge surprises elsewhere).
On Jan. 8, a week from Tuesday, “Jimmy Kimmel Live” will move from its midnight start time (11c) to 11:35 p.m. (10:35c), where it will compete head-on with “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” on NBC and “Late Show with David Letterman” on CBS.
The move’s first victim is “Nightline,” which shifts to 12:35 a.m. eastern time after holding down the lead-off position in ABC late-night for decades. Look for “Nightline” to lose as much as half of its viewership, if not more.
But for “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” what a difference 25 minutes will make — or so ABC hopes. It remains to be seen if the “Kimmel” show will take a sudden leap upward in the ratings on day one, or even week one (or ever), particularly at the expense of Jay or Dave. But as Kimmel himself pointed out a few weeks ago in a conference call with reporters, the hour of midnight represents a very significant line of demarcation for late-night viewers and people generally. Demonstrating that he’s a shrewd and diligent student of late-night TV, he noted that midnight is the time many people realize it’s late and then decide it’s time to turn in for the night. It’s a behavioral thing, which is one reason why starting 25 minutes before the midnight hour will likely help Jimmy.
Whatever happens, the move is historic. While ABC has tried to mount a number of late-night shows in past decades — particularly back when “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” was on NBC and CBS had no competing show in the time period — the move of “Jimmy Kimmel Live” will mean all three of the oldest, most traditional broadcast networks will have late-night talk shows all competing at 11:35 p.m. for the first time (to our knowledge). (ABC’s late-night hosts over the decades ranged from Joey Bishop to Rick Dees.)
One of the big questions for Kimmel will be whether viewers who have long been in the habit of watching Jay or Dave (or toggling between the two, as many of us do), will be willing to add a third choice to the mix. Sure, there are many people who choose to watch either Jay or Dave, but many also switch between the two — to compare monologues or, in each show’s second segment, check out how Letterman’s “Top Ten” list might compare on any given night to one of Leno’s comedy segments such as “Headlines” or “Jay Walking.” Will viewers begin forming the habit of switching between all three?
Our take on that: It won’t be an easy habit for Kimmel to establish, which means to us that his ratings initially will be based primarily on his regular viewers simply following him to the earlier time period.
We’ll certainly be watching the ratings on Kimmel’s first night and beyond to see if he upends the late-night race or merely settles in as the time period’s third-place finisher. Certainly, CBS and NBC will be watching also — particularly NBC which is already reportedly poised to replace Leno with Jimmy Fallon in 2014, though none of that has ever been confirmed.
At the very least, the arrival of Kimmel, 45, in the 11:35 time period means a younger generation is starting to plant its flag there. (Leno and Letterman are 62 and 65, respectively.) For the record, the “Kimmel” show still lags far behind Jay and Dave in the ratings. For the most recent week when all three had original broadcasts — Dec. 10-14 — viewership was: 3.3 million for Leno, 3.1 million for Letterman, and 1.9 million for Kimmel in the midnight hour.