As NBC Debates Latenight, ABC Is Pulling the Strings

Jimmy Kimmel maneuver makes leaving Jay Leno on 'Tonight' a tough call

The Jay Leno siren song has sounded so often over the last few years it seems more popular than a Taylor Swift single. But who’s calling the tune this time?

If NBC is indeed gearing up for a new attempt at easing Leno out of his “Tonight Show” roost and slipping Jimmy Fallon in, as has been reported by many media outlets over the past several days, then the likely suspects doing the orchestrating would include everyone from Paul Telegdy, the network’s head of late night, to NBC Entertainment Chairman Robert Greenblatt to NBCU CEO Steve Burke himself.

And then there’s ABC.

By placing Jimmy Kimmel at 11:35 p.m. in January, the Walt Disney network has taken a guy once known for offering beer to the audiences who sat in his theater and a risqué video featuring Matt Damon and turned him into a destabilizing wee-hours force. You won’t get Anne Sweeney or anyone else at ABC to call the maneuver what it is — a deliberate effort to take control of the time period before older rivals Leno and David Letterman finally sign off.  But ABC’s new Kimmel debut does makes leaving Leno in his current time slot a liability for NBC – not today and not six months from now, perhaps, but not much longer after that.

Where Johnny Carson once held sway as a new day beckoned, latenight now houses an ever-increasing number of attractions. Yes, NBC’s “Tonight” is the king, but it rules a kingdom that houses fiefdoms controlled by Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, E!’s Chelsea Handler and TBS’s Conan O’Brien. And those hosts ride herd over select niches advertisers consider paramount: young people between the ages of 18 and 34.

See Also: NBC Grapples With Leno-Fallon Frenzy

Add CBS’s two latenight entries – “The Late Show With David Letterman” and “The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson” — as well as NBC’s own “Late Night” franchise hosted by Jimmy Fallon. Stir in a growing number of weekly experimental efforts from FX (Russell Brand) and MTV (Nikki Glaser and Sara Schaefer). Combine with the daunting prospect of a latenight return for Arsenio Hall scheduled to launch in syndication this fall.  That’s a big crowd.

NBC may own the category, but what does it control, really? Where Carson baked the pie and served it up every night, Leno dishes just the largest slice.

NBC’s “Tonight” lured an average of 3.51 million viewers overall in the recently completed February sweeps, according to Nielsen – more than time-slot rivals Letterman (3.29 million) and Kimmel (2.53 million). Yet in the 18-to-49 demographic, it’s more of a race: “Tonight” captured an average of 1.003 million compared with “Late Show’s” 929,000 and “Kimmel’s” 898,000. And “Kimmel” has snared that audience at 11:35 p.m. in less than three months’ time.

Those numbers might make NBC execs fret: Leno is winning on average more viewers in 18 to 49, but you have to suspect Kimmel is attracting a nice percentage at the lower end of the age range, young people under 30 who will become the dominant strain of the late-night audience in five to ten years’ time.

See Also: Can NBC Escape Latenight PR Mess?

The longer Leno sits atop the late-night throne, the longer Kimmel has to establish a beachhead. And the tougher it becomes for Jimmy Fallon to win the lucrative audience niche. At the very least, he’ll be playing catch-up.

NBC may also be looking for a new hook for sponsors. Advertising-wise, “Tonight” is a shadow of its former self. In 2007, NBC’s “Tonight” won approximately $255.9 million in ad dollars, according to Kantar Media. In 2012, the venerable show notched only $146.1 million – a testament to the growing number of players in the time slot.

NBC is no doubt unaccustomed to taking cues from a rival. After all, it once boasted the top-rated prime-time lineup and the top morning show in addition to the leading late-night talkfest. In this case at least, the Peacock may have to take marching orders from an entertainment conglomerate willing to shove “Nightline” to make way for a joker from Brooklyn.

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