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ABC Commits To Kimmel

New multi-year deal is near

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.

MTV Lays Off 250 Staffers

Viacom’s MTV Networks last week began laying off 250 people in an effort to cut costs. The layoffs cut across MTVN’s stable of cable brands and were designed to free up resources for new digital ventures, the company said.

The company shuttered some smaller divisions. Nick Jr. Family Magazine, which started in 1999 and employed about 15, will close after its April issue. Also shut down was premium service MTV World, which started in 2005 and targeted Asian-Americans with three DirecTV channels: MTV Desi, MTV Chi and MTV K.

The entire staff of digital cable channel VH1 Classic, including General Manager Eric Sherman, was let go and that of MTV2 greatly reduced. MTV2 General Manager David Cohn was cut from his role but may remain with the company. Those channels will remain but will be under centralized operation by bigger networks VH1 and MTV.

Several high-ranking programming and production executives were let go, as well. They include Executive VP, Programming, Paul DeBenedittis; Senior VP, Production, Salli Frattini; and Senior VP, Event Productions, Kathy Flynn.

MTVN’s affiliate sales division saw big changes with longtime executives departing: Executive VPs Sandy Ashendorf and Jessica Heacock and Senior VP Susan Keith. Division chief Nicole Browning left last month. Promoted to division executive VP is Denise Dahldorf.

Separately, MTVN General Counsel/Executive VP David Sussman left and will be replaced by current execs Andra Shapiro and George Cheeks.

Further cuts are likely in international operations.

MTVN Chairman/CEO Judy McGrath announced the cuts to her staff in a morning e-mail on Monday, Feb. 12.

“We are creative leaders who continue to invest in our television and digital future,” she said. “And to keep winning in this revolutionary environment, we have to refine our business and organizational models as well.”—Anne Becker

FCC Toughens Violence Report

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, with help from Democratic Commissioner Michael Copps, has modified the commission’s upcoming TV-violence report to strengthen the language on the impact on kids, according to FCC sources.

The report will also explicitly recommend à la carte cable and/or family tiers as one way of addressing the issue of violent programming on cable. The chairman has been pushing for à la carte or tiers to give parents more control over indecent cable content for a while.

According to the source, the report, requested by Congress in 2004, no longer asks for further study of the violence issue by the Department of Health and Human Services. Instead, it points to a strong connection between TV violence and real-world behavior and suggests possible government action, including possible time and place restrictions for broadcasting.

The FCC Website already identifies American TV as “the most violent in the world,” and cites studies suggesting causal connections between TV violence and aggressive behavior.

As initially reported by B&C, the study argues that Congress can fashion a legally sustainable definition of TV violence that will give the commission the ability to regulate such content on broadcast TV as it does indecent and profane content.

First Amendment lawyers are not so sure. Jack Goodman, a communications attorney with Wilmer Hale and a former NAB general counsel, says the problems are threefold: 1) “The courts have rejected the argument that violence is legally equivalent to indecency.” 2) “It is difficult to construct a definition that clearly distinguishes objectionable violence from acceptable violence.” 3) If you could write the definition, is there evidence that the adverse effects of violence that the commission sees are created only by the objectionable violence?”

If Congress does attempt to fashion such a definition—Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) is introducing a bill to do just that—the FCC would likely try to channel such broadcast content to a 10 p.m.-6 a.m. harbor similar to that for indecency.

A Rockefeller staffer says the latest FCC draft is “moving in the right direction.”

—John Eggerton

Correction

The National Religious Broadcasters Association convention was held in Orlando, Fla. The host city was misidentified in “God Comes to the Internet” (Special Report, 2/12).

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