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January 29, 2009

ABC denies Kimmel slot shift

This is one of those stories that a network will deny until it's true.

This isn't to say it will happen. "Nightline" is much cheaper to produce than "Jimmy Kimmel Live." And it's generally safer to be selling X in a time period than be one of three networks trying to sell Y.

Still, the industry sense is that ABC Entertainment president Stephen McPherson finds this idea tempting because of the rare and deep sea change under way in late-night represents his network's best chance to seize control of the post-prime hours. And remember McPherson is a demonstrated fan of making bold, aggressive scheduling gestures -- moving "Grey's Anatomy" against "CSI," filling Wednesdays with three new shows in 2007, being the first network in years to counterprogram the Super Bowl. 

So it wouldn't be surprising if "Kimmel Live" moved to 11:35 p.m., and wouldn't be surprising if it did not. Be a bummer for Conan O'Brien, though. He said at TCA that he's "a Darwin guy," that “when conditions get tougher it gives you an opportunity to get better.” ABC moving Kimmel into his time slot would be yet another opportunity.

Here's THR's Paul J. Gough with more on the subject:

ABC executives late Wednesday denied a published report that suggested ABC Entertainment was considering moving "Jimmy Kimmel Live" into the coveted 11:35 p.m. slot to go head-to-head with "The Tonight Show With Conan O'Brien."

The New York Times said Wednesday that the entertainment division "has held discussions" about the move but also quoted Disney-ABC Television Group president Anne Sweeney as saying that it was speculative and no move was contemplated this year. But it was another signal that "Nightline," which has survived many near-death experiences in the past decade, could be threatened.

An ABC source who declined to be identified said that there had been no conversations between the entertainment and news divisions about whether "Jimmy Kimmel Live" would move into the prized 11:35 p.m. slot.

"Zero," the executive said.

The report highlighted what seems to be a discord between ABC Entertainment and ABC News over the future of the 11:35 p.m. time slot. For nearly three decades it has been the province of "Nightline," but ABC executives may see a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make hay against the late-night switch at NBC to O'Brien, who will be taking over for Jay Leno when the latter moves to 10 p.m.

Kimmel, a favorite of ABC entertainment executives, is critically acclaimed but ratings-challenged between 12:05 a.m. and 1:05 a.m.

It's not the first time that the plucky newsmagazine has been written off for dead. "Nightline" under Ted Koppel was imperiled in 2002 when the heads of the network tried to lure David Letterman away from CBS to compete directly against NBC's late-night talk king, Leno. Koppel eventually left "Nightline," causing the show to once again be written off for dead. But in the three years under executive producer James Goldston and co-anchors Cynthia McFadden, Martin Bashir and Terry Moran, "Nightline" has been reborn, not only holding its audience but increasing its viewership. It has beaten "Late Show With David Letterman" seven weeks this season in ratings, and even toppled perennial leader "Tonight" once.

"Nightline" was up 10 percent in the fourth quarter compared with a year earlier, while Kimmel's show was down 3 percent in its time slot a half-hour later. Kimmel's 1.8 million viewers at 12:05 a.m. ranks him sixth among all late-night programs, slightly behind "Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson" (1.9 million) but well ahead of "Later With Carson Daly" (1.1 million). "Nightline" in the fourth quarter was about even with Letterman for second place.


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