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It's a man's man's world

Late night has long been male- dominated. But that takes on all new meaning as 'The Man Show's' Jimmy Kimmel gets his own talk show on ABC.

January 26, 2003|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

My late-night death happened at 12:15 a.m., as Thursday became Friday. On ABC's "Nightline: UpClose," Viacom Inc. Chairman Sumner Redstone was talking about the future of the Internet, his stock portfolio, his business philosophy. "I'd rather be a lover than a fighter," Redstone said. He gave off a mischievous grin. I felt I understood him implicitly.

Here's the deal: If you find yourself late one night wanting to watch Sumner Redstone talk about his stock portfolio, as opposed to viewer mail on "Late Show With David Letterman" or Katie Holmes on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," then there can be no more denying it: You're dead as a viewer of late-night TV.

You're dead because they really don't care about you, whether it's "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" and "Last Call With Carson Daly" on NBC, "Late Show With David Letterman" and "The Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn" on CBS, or "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" on Comedy Central.

At 37, I thought I had more years to go. College coincided not with Steve Allen, but with Letterman's 12:30 a.m. NBC years. And so it came as a kind of final do-not-resuscitate order when I asked Jimmy Kimmel, the newest -- and seventh -- white guy in late night about going after 20- to 40-year-old viewers.

Kimmel corrected me. His core audience, he said, would be 18 to 35.

"Jimmy Kimmel Live" debuts tonight after the Super Bowl on ABC. In what amounts to pro bono programming, the network used "Nightline: UpClose" to fill the void created by the cancellation of "Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher" in June. Now ABC gets back to the business of chasing the youth vote in late night, banking that Kimmel, like Letterman and O'Brien before him, will resonate with a new generation of 20-year-old males sending in minimum payments on their first Visa cards. Those of you who get low interest and frequent-flier miles can hear about his show in the morning.

ABC is all too ready to get in the game. None of the late-night shows draws audiences in huge numbers, but all are established in their own way, whether as a ratings leader (Leno), a brand (Letterman) or media darling (Stewart).

They attract a concentration of young male viewers who are highly coveted by advertisers. More broadly, the shows provide each of their networks a veneer of youth-oriented with-it-ness, the pretense of staging a late-night pop culture salon.

You can imagine, then, how out of it ABC has felt: On the very last "Nightline: UpClose," the show booked Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning novelist and Holocaust witness.

Kimmel's show will air from midnight to 1 a.m., going out live to the East Coast during a 9 p.m. broadcast from the Disney-owned El Capitan Entertainment Complex in Hollywood. The show is expected to be layered thick with the kind of humor Kimmel displayed on his Comedy Central series, "The Man Show": irony that doesn't bite but can nevertheless be acknowledged as clever. It is the most anyone shoots for.

The last comedian who really made noise in late night was Arsenio Hall, who arrived on Fox in 1989 as competition to NBC's "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson"; Hall was a sycophant with guests, but there was no getting around the fact that a black comedian-host could put a fresh spin on a format grown staid with white people (a decade later on HBO, "The Chris Rock Show" realized this again).

Hall fizzled in the early 1990s, as late night transitioned into the Leno-Letterman wars. Those who launched shows against them failed, sometimes humiliatingly so, as in the case of Chevy Chase, who lasted all of six weeks.

Enter ... Kimmel? Many people don't know who he is, which ABC spins as part of its strategy. Big names spell big flops.

"Jimmy Kimmel Live" will be done live at 9 weeknights. The show is going for a vibe. They will serve drinks in the lobby -- it'll be like a hip club, with bands. .

Leno and Letterman get the biggest late-night audience (an average 5.8 million viewers for "The Tonight Show" this season, versus an average of 4.2 million viewers for "The Late Show," according to Nielsen Media Research). Combined, Leno and Letterman account for 21% of those watching television at 11:30 p.m. "Jimmy Kimmel Live," the optimistic theory goes, won't cut into the Leno or Letterman audience; it'll attract new late-night viewers -- guys a little bug-eyed from watching too much "SportsCenter," or waiting out the exposition on whatever soft-porn movie is airing on Cinemax.

This is the company Kimmel keeps, thanks in large part to the success of "The Man Show," which is in its fourth year on Comedy Central and evidently will continue with two new guys replacing Kimmel and co-host Adam Carolla. Kimmel came up with the concept -- a series that, using bits and babes ("Juggy Girls," they came to be called), would celebrate and lampoon the inner caveman.

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