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Gimme More Jimmy

2/29/2008 07:00:00 PM Eastern

Timing is everything in comedy, and for now Jimmy Kimmel is on a roll.

Not only is he apparently having sex with Ben Affleck, but he is amassing newfound support from his own network and some of the funniest comedy of the season, right before a potentially tumultuous time in the late-night landscape.

I have long questioned how much ABC really believes in Jimmy Kimmel Live, but now the network is at least acting like it does. ABC gave him a strong push during the Academy Awards, and he responded with a surprisingly star-packed post-Oscars special. If viewers fail to notice the constantly improving show, his network already has.

“He is giving us a reason to push the show,” says ABC Entertainment President Steve McPherson. “I'm really proud of the work Jimmy is doing.”

So, like a pro athlete having a great season right before free agency, it is now up to Kimmel to build on the momentum, increase his numbers and position himself as a long-term player in the late-night game—at ABC or elsewhere.

Kimmel grabbed some serious mainstream buzz last month for the “I'm F***ing Matt Damon” music video featuring the actor and Kimmel's real-life girlfriend, comedian Sarah Silverman. The clip became the overnight “must-see” sensation and drew 8 million views around the Web.

Next came Oscar night, and ABC showed him some love. The network gave his post-Oscars special strong promotion, including the plush spot during a break before the Best Director award. Even ABC's Kimmel ads have improved. The last campaign was a half-hearted “Do You Jimmy?” push that fizzled, unless its goal was to remind viewers of the similar Yahoo tagline. But a new promo calling Jimmy the “king of late-night cool” highlights the improving bookings and positions the show as “the place to be in late night,” as McPherson hopes.

Kimmel's Sunday-night special knocked it out of the park with his one-upping response to the Damon-Silverman piece, this one entitled “I'm F***ing Ben Affleck.”

While the creative execution was hysterical, it was the coup of booking by Kimmel's team, led by executive producer and David Letterman alum Jill Leiderman, that really sent a message that this show aspires to be mentioned with the big boys. The bit had more than 20 celebs, led by big names like Brad Pitt, Harrison Ford and Cameron Diaz. And showing the increasing pull of the show, most of them actually assembled for a “We Are the World”-like song, as opposed to just doing individual shoots.

So, where does Kimmel go from here? That question was meant to be figurative, but by next year could be literal given the coming shakeup in late night thanks to Jay Leno's possible free agency and Fox's interest in jumping into the daypart.

First, Kimmel just has to keep grabbing more eyeballs. His audience of less than two million is growing, but also aging. Viewership before the strike was up 4% year-over-year, but median age also jumped nearly 2.5 years, to 49.4.

But even as Kimmel and Leiderman have reinvented the show since its inauspicious early years, there are things they can't control, such as the incompatible Nightline lead-in.

Another issue working against Kimmel is his image as the former host of The Man Show, which proudly celebrated big-breasted bimbos and beer. He wants to outgrow that persona through hosting other company properties like award and game shows, but it still makes for strange bedfellows with ABC.

McPherson has built ABC's successful run around female-skewing shows like Desperate Housewives and Grey's Anatomy. Kimmel does not strike that same chord for the network. He's the guy you want to have a beer with and make fun of that sappy crap.

Then add the pressure of rumors that ABC wants to pluck whoever NBC jettisons, be it Leno or Conan O'Brien.

For now, though, Kimmel has as much momentum as he has ever had, and he's earned it. Now comes the hard part: building on it.

E-mail comments to ben.grossman@reedbusiness.com

 

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