By Chuck Barney
Contra Costa Times
WALNUT CREEK, Calif. -- In a long-overdue move, ABC next week will shift "Jimmy Kimmel Live" from midnight to 11:35 p.m., where the show's host will go head-to-head with late-night titans David Letterman and Jay Leno. It's a strategy that comes laced with a delicious bit of irony.
In 2002, ABC made an all-out bid to lure Letterman away from CBS, offering him the time period occupied by the news program "Nightline." Shortly after Letterman turned down the offer, ABC introduced Kimmel in the post-"Nightline" hour to relatively little fanfare.
Six years later, ABC aggressively wooed Leno, who was about to be replaced at NBC by Conan O'Brien -- again offering the "Nightline" slot. But Leno instead tried an ill-fated prime-time show, before reclaiming "The Tonight Show" desk.
Now, ABC is suddenly counting on Kimmel to deliver a ratings blow to both Leno and Letterman. Starting Tuesday, "Nightline" will air an hour later, allowing Kimmel to finally meet the late-night heavy-hitters on their own turf and eliminate the head start they've long enjoyed.
It doesn't sound like much: Only a measly 25 minutes. But for Kimmel, the new start time is significant.
"The big deal is that, for some reason, people go to sleep at midnight. You lose a lot of people at that time," he told media members during a recent conference call. "So the audience is much bigger. There are a lot more people up watching television at 11:35 than there are at midnight. It's as simple as that."
But it also means a great deal personally for Kimmel, who once spoke of being able to host a "real" talk show in the earlier slot, versus a "talk-show fantasy camp."
"Maybe this is something that we in the industry are more interested in than the general public," he said. "But there's mythology and traditions surrounding that 11:35 time slot that started with Johnny Carson and then became a big deal when Leno went up against Letterman."
Don't expect to see major changes because of the earlier start. The perception that the show needs to "broaden" or become "more wholesome" is a "little bit out of date," said Kimmel, who will welcome Jennifer Aniston and the rock band No Doubt as his guests Tuesday night.
Still, the move isn't without some risk for ABC. "Nightline," after all, actually has been beating Leno and Letterman in the ratings and will most certainly lose some steam when it airs an hour later. Meanwhile, the audience for "Jimmy Kimmel Live" (about 1.8 million viewers) is substantially smaller than that of "Nightline" (3.8 million).
Then again, it does makes financial sense. Advertisers generally pay more for an entertainment show -- and for younger viewers in the highly coveted 18-to-49 demographic. At 44, Kimmel is younger -- and edgier -- than Leno and Letterman, both of whom are in their 60s. And it's no coincidence that the time shift comes at a time when Kimmel's audience is steadily growing while his rivals' ratings are slipping.
Kimmel, in fact, has seen his star steadily rise over the past few years. There was that well-received hosting gig at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. This past fall, he hosted the Emmy Awards for the first time and earned his first Emmy nomination for best variety show. In addition, his hilarious viral videos have gained widespread attention.
He may not be the most-watched late-night funny guy, but he's certainly the hottest.
Nevertheless, Kimmel admits it will be a "little strange" taking on Letterman, who long has been his television idol. On the other hand, if "Nolan Ryan is pitching to you, you still have to try to hit the ball -- no matter how many baseball cards you have (of him) in your bedroom, or posters on the wall," he said.
Kimmel doesn't hold Leno in such high esteem, having publicly slammed "The Tonight Show" host over the years. But he's not about to dismiss him as a viable rival.
"Never count Jay out," he said. "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."
Even so, Leno can't go on forever, which brings up another benefit of ABC's move: It allows Kimmel to be at the forefront of a new generation of 11:35 hosts -- getting a jump on Jimmy Fallon, who appears to be the heir apparent at NBC, and whoever is chosen to replace Letterman at CBS.
As for his own future, Kimmel, who recently signed a two-year contract extension, insists that he's not a "lifer."
"I'm not going to be one of those guys that they have to drag off the stage," he said. "If we were lucky enough to do another 10 years, I would be very happy with that. But you never know. There seems to be some addiction that takes hold, and people are unwilling to give these jobs up."