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No Laughing Matter

Some people think Jimmy Kimmel is a funny guy. Apparently not enough think so for ratings success. Eighteen months on-air and Jimmy Kimmel Live
is flagging.

Kimmel's audience is the lowest of any show in late-night network TV. It's also the youngest in its time slot. But even when the show improves its performance, there are problems.

This month, ABC's Kimmel
had its best week in six months among adults 18-34, its largest audience since last December, and the highest-rated show ever among women 18-34. Broadcast on a one-hour delay due to indecency fears, it fares better in the big markets—New York, Los Angeles, Chicago—than its national numbers reveal.

The trouble is, the competition does better.

In the May sweeps, Kimmel
averaged nearly 1.7 million viewers, down about 80,000 from the prior year. NBC's Carson Daly
averaged 1.71 million viewers, while CBS's Craig Kilborn
averaged around 1.8 million. Late night's leader, NBC's The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, leads the pack by nearly 200,000 viewers at 6.25 million, while CBS's The Late Show With David Letterman
checks in at nearly 4.5 million.

Leno also owns the demos, averaging a 2.5 rating/11 share in adults 18-49. By comparison, Kimmel
comes in at 0.7/4 among young adults, flat year-to-year.

Both ABC and the Kimmel
crew know building a franchise takes time. But the network's prime time problems and a lead-in from Nightline, a distinctly different audience, don't help. "I don't have ratings goals right now; I have creative goals for the show," says Kimmel's new boss, Andrea Wong, ABC's executive vice president, alternative programming, specials and late night. After ABC Entertainment Television Group Chairman Lloyd Braun, the show's champion, was forced to resign three months ago, Kimmel got nervous.

"It was definitely scary to lose Lloyd," he says. "I always got the sense that Lloyd would love to come work on the show."

Even with Braun gone, ABC remains behind Kimmel
and is committed to boosting ratings. The network will launch a ramped-up marketing campaign this October, focusing heavily on Kimmel and his brand of humor. "We feel strongly there is a much bigger audience out there for Jimmy," says Senior Vice President of Marketing Mike Benson. "Once you get to know him and experience his sense of humor, he can be much more relatable than Leno or Letterman."

How will ABC reach the uninitiated? By switching gears.

ABC first focused only on the male 18-34 demographic, the fans Kimmel brought from his days on Comedy Central's The Man Show. But he needs more than elusive young men to compete with Leno's and Letterman's large, established audiences. So Wong is going after women: "Tonally, we want to broaden the show to include them."

And Kimmel is all for it. If network execs want to book different guests or bands to attract women, he's ready. "I don't think it's broken down as much between men and women as between young people and old people," he says. "It's chauvinistic to think women don't like this kind of comedy."

To signal a change in style, ABC booted Kimmel's long-time producing partner Daniel Kellison last fall and gave the executive-producer post to Duncan Gray, vice president of alternative programming, on an interim basis. Nine months later, Gray is still running the show.

"They started this daily show from scratch. The machinery you need to make Jimmy's life tolerable, they didn't have time to do," says Gray, who developed and produced The Big Breakfast
morning show in the U.K. "We hope experience leads us to help Jimmy make more right decisions than wrong ones."

The wrong decisions have been costly. Recently, Kimmel joked during an NBA finals game: "I realize that they're going to burn the city of Detroit down if the Pistons win, and it's not worth it."

The fallout from this off-the-cuff comment caused ABC to pull the show for a night. Kimmel had to apologize twice. Once with his typical sarcasm: "If the Lakers win, I hope to overturn my own car." And a second time with sincerity: "I was trying to make a joke. I'm sorry it resulted in anything other than laughter."

Still, Kimmel takes a "what me, worry?" attitude about it.

"Stuff doesn't phase me," he says. "When I was in radio, I was occasionally in danger of losing my job. I made $20,000 a year, and I had two kids. So if an incident mushrooms into something, I deal with it and move on. I try to focus on things I can do something about."

For now, that means being funny—and hoping the audience gets the jokes.