Jimmy Kimmel on His Ratings, Where He Would Like Leno to Go (Not What You Think)—and the One Area Where He’s Actually on Jay’s Side

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As speculation about NBC’s succession plans for The Tonight Show heated up last week amid a stronger-than-expected demo performance by Jimmy Kimmel Live! since its historic move to 11:35 p.m., B&C editor-in-chief Melissa Grego talked with Jimmy Kimmel on Friday about his impact on the competition; the reason ABC won’t be sending him any emails suggesting he go easy on them; and one area where he’s actually on Jay Leno’s side.

Meantime, ABC execs claim their strategy to move JKL up from midnight to 11:35 and pushing Nightline back from 11:35 to 12:35 a.m. starting Jan. 8 has worked better than expected. In a statement to B&C, John Saade, executive VP, alternative series and late night, ABC, said: “The move has been a big success. We set high but reasonable goals when we made the shift, and Jimmy is exceeding them. We are winning in the sales-desirable demos of adults 18-34 and women 18-49, and very strong in A counties.”

JKL’s demo ratings are up considerably from what it drew at midnight. Ten weeks into its new 11:35 p.m. time slot — where viewership levels overall are of course higher — JKL is up over its performance through the same weeks last year by 41% in adults 18-49 to 936,000 and by 42% in adults 18-34 to 332,000, according to Nielsen data provided by ABC. It’s up 53% among total viewers to 2.64 million.

In the head-to-head, hour-to-hour game with Leno and Letterman, JKL was expected to get a big sampling at first but not necessarily to have maintained as strong a performance two and a half months in. On average, through its first 10 weeks at 11:35 p.m., JKL’s adult 18-49 average places the show in second place behind NBC’s The Tonight Show with Jay Leno (1.017 million in 18-49, which is down 10% compared to the same 10 weeks last year). And JKL is ahead of CBS’ The Late Show with David Letterman, which is down 19% to 871,000 in 18-49.

JKL’s 332,000 is tops in 18-34. Tonight is down 8% in 18-34 (317,000) and down 7% in total viewers to 3.53 million. Letterman is down 10% in 18-34 (274,000) and down 5% in viewers (3.1 million).

JKL’s additional demo points at 11:35 are particularly valuable to ABC, since execs can sell advertising at more of a premium for entertainment than news content against them. That and the suggestion of reports that Kimmel’s performance has NBC more eager than ever to get fellow youth-appealing Jimmy Fallon into the Tonight Show gig undoubtedly makes for a good story for ABC to take to market this upfront season — the network’s first upfront to sell JKL as an 11:35 p.m. show. (The time period move was announced after upfront sales for the current season concluded.)

Making JKL comparisons to Nightline is trickier. While JKL does not have the total viewership Nightline pulled at 11:35, it was not expected to. As Kimmel pointed out to B&C before the switch, being that Nightline is a half-hour show, it’s rated on fewer minutes than hour-long JKL and “in late-night, that’s a major factor. Your first half-hour is higher-rated than your second half-hour because people go to sleep.”

Also, Nightline was nationally rated for about 17 minutes in the 11:35 p.m. half-hour and JKL is rated for the full 25 minutes in that slot, according to ABC. While JKL is down 1% among total viewers for the hour at 11:35, it’s improving the hour for ABC over the comparable 10 weeks in 2012 (when the hour comprised Nightline and the first half hour of JKL­– the comparison ABC says matters to their strategy) by 6% in adults 18-49 (936,000 vs. 882,000) and by 16% in adults 18-34 (332,000 vs. 287,000).

An edited transcript of the conversation with Kimmel follows.

Are the ratings so far for JKL in your new time period better, worse or about what you expected?

Oh they’re definitely better. They’re definitely better than we expected and they’re much better than ABC privately, internally expected. We never expected to be so close to The Tonight Show so quickly. You know a lot is made of how many people are watching the show but the truth is all that matters is 18 to 49, that’s the element that they sell and why we’re on the air. So we’re doing much better than we expected in that category.

So you’re hosting the ABC upfront again — for the 157th time? Or how many times have you done it?

I’ve decided to keep doing it until people are very, very sick of me. I did it before our show went on the air, which was 2003, so I’m not good at math but I think that it’s the 11th.

Given the recent reported “Emailgate” between NBC’s Bob Greenblatt and Jay Leno where Bob reportedly gave Jay some emailed feedback about jokes Jay was making about NBC’s ratings, does that make you think about considering pulling any punches at upfronts?

No not at all. I’m firmly on Jay’s side on that particular subject. If that did happen — and I don’t know if it did — it seems like a very silly email to send. Talk shows have been making fun of their network and network executives for about 40 years now. It shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone.

Has ABC ever said anything to you about how rough you are at the upfront or on the show and what would you do if they did?

For primetime they have. What really happened at the upfront is it was kind of an accident. I wrote my upfront script and nobody thought to look at it. And so I went on stage and I did well; everybody really seemed to enjoy it. Then afterward some of the executives were laughing and said, ‘You know if you had showed that material to us beforehand we never would have let you do that.’

So it was kind of a perfect mistake. And as a result of getting laughs with that kind of material they’re now comfortable that I’m not going to destroy their sales initiatives by making fun of our network and others. It’s become like a tradition now.

Who would you rather see hosting The Tonight Show, Jay Leno or Jimmy Fallon?

I don’t have a particular preference. I think that my relationship with Jay Leno is well-known and I happen to like Jimmy Fallon a lot both personally and professionally so I would be very happy for him if and when he gets The Tonight Show.

NBC has been pretty transparent about the fact that Fallon is the heir apparent to The Tonight Show and given that they’re re-doing his studio in New York it is very likely that when the time comes for Fallon to take on The Tonight Show it will be based in New York. That will leave just you in L.A. at 11:35 among the big three broadcast late night shows. Do you see a competitive advantage in that?

I think it will be an advantage. Geography plays a huge role in what talk show you (celebrity guests) do. If you’re in New York you’ll do Letterman or Fallon and if you’re in L.A. you’ll do The Tonight Show or our show or Conan or Craig Ferguson. I do think it will be helpful to us.

You’ve told me you think Jay Leno would have to be dragged out of NBC to let go of The Tonight Show again. But Johnny Carson went out on top. As great as you are doing, if he leaves next year he’s probably still going to go out on top. How do you think Leno should play the succession? Should he go out head held high?

I’m almost certain he’ll go out on top. He’s No. 1 right now and we never expected to be competitive with him so quickly. The Tonight Show has been on since 1954 at 11:30. We’ve been on since January. I have no doubt that he’ll go out as No 1. And I’m sure the situation will probably drum up lot of interest in his show and what’s going on there.

The difference with Johnny and Jay is Johnny retired voluntarily. And nobody’s Johnny.

What do you think of the idea of Leno going somewhere else? There’s talk he could go to Fox [NY Post reports the Fox affiliates would consider a deal from Fox], he could do syndication. Would you like to see Leno somewhere else - is competition good?

I’d rather he go to his garage and not compete with anybody. He remains very popular and as far as I’m concerned the less competition the better.

How do you feel about your impact on the game as far as the reports that NBC is perhaps accelerating the passing of the baton from Jay to Jimmy because you’re doing well with the demos and online. How do you feel about it and do you think that it’s true?

I don’t know if it is. I like to believe that it is. The truth is there’s a secret pact between all Jimmys to help each other out. Fallon and I have been planning this for years.

Have you talked to Jay Leno or Jimmy Fallon or Dave Letterman about what’s going with The Tonight Show plans — or those emails?

No I’m very focused on college basketball right now. I don’t talk to Jay and I try not to bother Dave and I’m sure Fallon is getting plenty of questions right now. So I know when you’re in the eye of a hurricane it’s best to leave people alone. I’m sure we’ll discuss it eventually.

How are things going generally in the new time slot? How does it feel now that you can count your time there by months?

It’s funny because it’s the same job, in the same studio and it’s mostly the same. It’s just interesting because all of a sudden there’s a lot more interest in what we’re doing and more people see what we’re doing. You can tell, you can really feel it. I know it’s only 25 minutes but it has made a big difference.

A difference in what?

In just the overall awareness of the show as far as when I’m walking around, people bringing specific things up to me. In the past, most of what I got comments about were things people saw on YouTube. I think we have a million and a half million subscribers on YouTube, which is a lot. Which means a lot of our audience is watching the show on the Internet.

But now they seem to be more aware of the little things, the bits that aren’t necessarily the viral video hits, and that makes me happy. Because you work on the show and you want people to see it. You don’t want them just cherry picking. If you had a restaurant you don’t want people only ordering the entrée, you want them to get a salad and the appetizers and dessert too.

It’s an exciting time and it’s strange to be a part of it. I almost feel like I understand what athletes go through. I suppose maybe in the future they’ll start trading talk show hosts for a sum of cash and a player to be named later. It is interesting to see people planning for the future and know you’re involved in this stuff. It never seems normal to me. It really doesn’t.

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