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ABC Commits to Kimmel

ABC and Jimmy Kimmel are close to a multi-year extension that would keep ABC’s late-night franchise in place beyond the 2009 season. Significantly, that’s when NBC’s Conan O’Brien is scheduled to supplant Jay Leno, a move sure to send tremors throughout the late-night schedule.

The pending deal indicates that ABC is solidifying its bet on Kimmel, whose ratings are up double digits in both adults 18-49 (17%) and total viewers (13%) season-to-date.

"We all feel like we’re growing this thing," says ABC Entertainment President Steve McPherson. "He wants us to bet on him, and we want to bet on him, so now we are moving forward."

The move also keeps ABC out of a potential bidding war for Kimmel, whose show was previously signed through 2008. As a steadily improving late-night personality with a growing audience, the former Man Show host might have been a perfect fit for Fox, which has said it wants to get back into late night.

"We’ve invested a lot in building him," McPherson says. "It would be silly to spend the money and then say goodbye or get caught with our pants down."

The move also signifies the network’s intention to stay with entertainment in the daypart, which continues to be the source of a tug of war between the entertainment and news divisions.

Although ABC’s news division recently shot a series of 60-minute pilots for Nightline, the shows were not ordered by the network and caused some internal strife at the company. A source close to the network says its sales department had previously told the news department it can’t monetize a 60-minute version of Nightline, ruling out the news program’s expanding beyond its 30-minute slot.

Kimmel’s new deal probably will not include a guaranteed time slot, although he will remain at midnight as long as Nightline stays on the air at 11:30 p.m. ABC has control of the daypart until 1 a.m.

Given the entertainment division’s long desire to take over the 11:30 time slot, one option would be for the network to make a run at Jon Stewart, whose deal with Comedy Central expires in 2008. Stewart would then air at 11:30, with Kimmel to follow. However, that outcome seems highly unlikely. If Stewart were to move to a broadcast network, he is said to covet David Letterman’s chair on CBS.

ABC is not expected to pursue Jay Leno, should NBC go ahead with its stated plan to insert Conan O’Brien into the Tonight Show chair in 2009. The possibility also remains that NBC could reverse its course and stick with Leno, which sources say would mean a payment in the neighborhood of $40 million to O’Brien, who would then be a free agent.

Kimmel will be given the chance to earn 11:30 himself. ABC plans to relaunch the show in the spring, backed by a big marketing push. In the meantime, Kimmel will host a post-Academy Awards special on the network Sunday, Feb. 25. ABC also has an unscripted series hosted by Kimmel called Set For Life that it has yet to debut.

Kimmel’s show is not yet profitable, but ABC executives have seen enough growth to stick with it and think it could be a moneymaker before the new deal is done.