By Gary Levin, USA TODAY
Jimmy Kimmel has long sought the same late-evening slot as rivals Jay Leno and David Letterman, and now he's getting his wish.
ABC today announced plans to move Jimmy Kimmel Live to 11:35 p.m. ET/PT, bumping Nightline an hour later to 12:35 a.m., starting Jan. 8.
As a consolation prize, Nightline will resume a prime-time edition Fridays at 9 staring March 1, and will expand to 30 minutes nightly. (Kimmel has aired at midnight since February 2011, shortening Nightline by about five minutes and prompting the news magazine's first prime-time run last summer.)
Kimmel's show is celebrating its 10th anniversary next year, and the comedian's profile has expanded of late: He hosted this year's White House Correspondents Dinner to generally favorable reaction, and will host his first Emmy Awards telecast on ABC Sept. 23.
"I have been quietly hoping for this," he says. "It's a thrill to go up against the big guys, and you feel like when you go up against the big guys you're hosting a real talk show and not a talk-show fantasy camp. In any job, you want to please your employer, and I think this is about as good a vote of confidence as we could get."
Even in the later time slot, Kimmel has slowly climbed in the ratings, up 3% last season to its highest level in five years, while The Tonight Show With Jay Leno and The Late Show With David Letterman both lost viewers.
"Given the passionate fan base Jimmy Kimmel Live has built over the past decade, and the show's ratings and creative momentum this season, the time is right to make this move," said Anne Sweeney, president of Disney ABC Television Group, in a statement.
But she conceded the slot switch has more to do with making money than making Kimmel happy, as The Tonight Show and Late Show are said to earn as much as $90 million a year each in ad revenue. "There is the potential for far greater upside over the long term with this shift, given increased advertiser demand for competitive entertainment programming in the time slot."
The move is being delayed until January to allow Nightline to capitalize on the presidential election; cable sibling ESPN's college football championship, culminating Jan. 7, will be used to promote the switch. But Nightline, which began in 1980 as a series of specials during the Iranian hostage crisis, has morphed from a hard-news single-topic broadcast, with Ted Koppel as its host until 2005, to a softer, multi-segment show that more closely resembles prime-time newsmagazines. It had faced cancellation at least once before, when ABC attempted to hire Letterman in 2002, winning a reprieve when he opted to stay at CBS.
But rumors of the slot switch or of Nightline's demise have cropped up for years, each time Kimmel's contract talks heated up. This time it worked, and his pact, due to expire in February, has been renegotiated and extended for two years. (Despite its title, the show has been taped since midway through its first season).
Kimmel says he's "done a good job of convincing them over a very long period of time" that he was ready to kick off the network's late-night block, though even with an expected ratings bump at the earlier hour, "it's entirely possible we'll stay in third" place. Still, at 44, he'll usher in a new generation of 11:35 hosts; NBC's Jimmy Fallon, 37, is also being groomed to eventually succeed Leno, 62.
Acknowledging his tenuous tenure at ABC, Kimmel says "If they'd done this five years ago, it probably would have been a mistake; I probably wasn't ready for 11:30 at that time. It's hard to be patient, but in this case, I think patience paid off for both parties."
Copyright 2012 USA TODAY