ABC's decision to move Jimmy Kimmel from midnight to 11:35 p.m. starting in January is a sign that the network thinks David Letterman and Jay Leno are there for the taking.
While Leno is still the king of late night and Letterman remains the critics' darling, Kimmel has made ratings gains over the last year. As Leno and Letterman head toward the finish line of their long runs, ABC wants to have their guy in place to do battle with NBC's Jimmy Fallon and whoever succeeds Letterman at CBS.
Kimmel has been pushing for an earlier time slot for years, but ABC News fought to keep "Nightline" at 11:35 p.m. Though the show has delivered solid ratings for ABC and is profitable, the network is betting that advertisers will pay more for Kimmel's audience and that he can attract a younger crowd than "Nightline."
Of course, there is more to late night than Leno, Letterman and Kimmel. Conan O'Brien, Jon Stewart and Chelsea Handler all begin their shows at 11 p.m. Those programs, however, are on cable. On broadcast TV, local stations air news at 11 p.m. TV stations count on news as a key source of revenue and would likely not give up that time slot without a big fight.
All that competition means there are more shows chasing the same number of advertisers. Late night shows, once cash cows, now struggle to make profits. Last week, NBC sliced the budget of Jay Leno's show because it was only breaking even financially. A few years ago, CBS reduced costs at Letterman's show.
For ABC, moving Kimmel is really a no-brainer. His audience will in a worst-case scenario stay the same and odds are he will siphon away viewers from Leno and Letterman as well as cable shows on Comedy Central and TNT.
Though news purists are no doubt mourning the decision to move "Nightline" from 11:35 p.m. to an hour later, they can take some solace in the fact that the network didn't cancel the show outright.
However, while "Nightline" was eeking out a few million in profit at 11:35 p.m., according to one person with knowledge of the show, it will be hard-pressed to stay in the black an hour later. Its audience will likely drop dramatically, which means advertisers will pay less to run spots during the show. In other words, the 12:35 time slot may be the last stop on the way to the grave.
As something of a consolation prize, ABC News was also given a prime time slot for a "Nightline" news magazine that will debut on Fridays at 9 p.m. starting in March.
The good news for "Nightline" is that it has a resurgent "Shark Tank" as a lead-in on Friday nights. The bad thing is that it's lead-out is "20/20," another news magazine.
For more on the change-up, The Times will host a Google+ Hangout with reporters Joe Flint and Meredith Blake to discuss the announcement and its implications at noon Pacific time today.
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Follow Joe Flint on Twitter @JBFlint.
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