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Is Kimmel Worth Staying Up For?

Considering that not all that many people stay up to watch late-night television, networks go to awfully great lengths to secure late-night talent. Take Jimmy Kimmel.

After failing to lure David Letterman away from CBS last March (and looking messy doing it), ABC went searching anew for a late-night talk-show host who could replace Bill Maher and Politically Incorrect. Maher, whose relationship with ABC was withering anyway, raised the ire of ABC, some affiliates and many Americans when, days after the 9/11 attacks, he said that, compared with American air strikes "from 2,000 miles away," the al Qaeda terrorists were "not cowardly" because they died, too, when the jetliners hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

During a golf game, ABC Entertainment Chairman Lloyd Braun asked Michael Davies, executive producer of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, to suggest whom ABC might get to host a late-night talk show. Davies, who had been involved with trying to bring a pilot of The Man Show
to ABC, said, "We have to get Jimmy Kimmel," then a star of Comedy Central's The Man Show.

Today, Kimmel and co-creator and executive producer Daniel Kellison are airing a show live on the East Coast from their own set in Hollywood each night at 9:05 p.m. PT. ABC is hoping to grab younger demographics, particularly men 18-34. Late-night television generally attracts males, but Jay Leno and David Letterman are each in their 50s, while Kimmel is just 35 and likely to have a built-in audience coming with him from Comedy Central.

In the two weeks that the show has been on the air, Jimmy Kimmel Live
is doing as well in adults 18-34 and men 18-34 as Politically Incorrect
did at the same time last year, although fewer people are watching: An average of 2.8 million tuned into Politically Incorrect
vs. 1.9 million into Kimmel. Kimmel
may not be making any inroads into Leno's and Letterman's established audiences, but ABC says it is happy with the show's performance so far. The network also likes to point out that the second half-hour of Kimmel, starting at 12:35 a.m. ET, is beating the first half-hour of CBS's The Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn: In adults 18-34, Kimmel
has averaged a 0.8 rating/4 share to Kilborn's 0.6/4; in adults 18-49, Kimmel
is averaging a 0.9/5 to Kilborn's 0.7/5.

Although the network wants the show to work among younger demos, "we don't try to pander to an audience, and we don't try to make things work based on who we think is watching," says Kellison.

Although audiences for late-night TV are relatively small, profits are large, analysts say.

"Both ends of the day are potential profit centers, mornings and late-night," says Bill Carroll, vice president of programming, Katz Television Group, "because the expense of doing shows there are relatively low while the potential revenues, even with moderate success, are pretty high."

According to published reports, The Tonight Show
gets about $60,000 per 30-second spot, while Letterman's Late Show
gets about $45,000. Both are enormously profitable: Analysts estimate that Letterman's show alone generates an estimated $80 million in profit for CBS each year, including earnings from CBS's owned-and-operated stations. That's after paying Letterman his $31.5 million annual salary and $90 million in license fees. The Tonight Show
clears some $200 million per year, more than $100 million in profit for NBC, reports say.

It's too early to tell how well Kimmel
will do financially for ABC, but it always makes sense for a network to hold on to a time slot rather than cede it to local affiliates. That way, the network keeps collecting most of the hour's advertising revenue. That's why CBS keeps up the fight in the morning, even though, between NBC's The Today Show
and ABC's Good Morning America, there's not much audience left for CBS. Right now, ABC clears Kimmel
in 95% of the nation, but only 70% take it live. That means it's playing very late elsewhere, further diminishing its ratings.

Another advantage to having a late-night show, says Tom DeCabia, executive vice president of Advanswers, is that viewers often get up in the morning and turn the TV back on the same channel. That would help ABC's Good Morning America, he explains.