Why Jimmy Kimmel Can't Lose (Like Conan O'Brien Lost)

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Jimmy Kimmel
Jimmy Kimmel ABC/Mitch Haddad

Once upon a time, a network named a youngish comic its new face of late night—and things went very, very badly.

But that was Conan O'Brien, this is Jimmy Kimmel.

"Striking while the iron's hot" is how David Campanelli, senior vice president of national-TV ad buying for Horizon Media, termed ABC's announcement Tuesday that Jimmy Kimmel Live will move from 12:05 a.m. to the vaunted 11:35 p.m. slot, starting Jan. 8.

Kimmel going head to head with Leno and Letterman

The M.O. would be the opposite of how NBC handled, and bungled, its would-be Tonight Show transition: announcing O'Brien as Jay Leno's successor five long years before the changeover, and thereby giving O'Brien time to cool, and Leno time to rethink his retirement. Messiness ensued.

For Kimmel, the promotion is imminent, and timely. Jimmy Kimmel Live's ratings are at a five-year high; its host is set to preside over next month's Primetime Emmys.

Then there's the matter of Leno: Kimmel's not replacing him, or any other friendly face for that matter. He's replacing a newsmagazine.

Kimmel set to marry girlfriend Molly McNearny

And while Nightline, which this past season has drawn a bigger audience and more demographically desirable crowd in its half-hour than Leno and David Letterman's Late Show have in their respective hours, is no slouch, it's no talk show, either.

"They [ABC] can charge more for Kimmel," Campanelli says. "As an entertainment show, it's more desired."

And in the long run, assuming Kimmel can ride out any rough spots that come with starting down a new road, then he'll be set up as the established heir to the late-night throne, once, and presumably if, Leno and Letterman retire.

O'Brien does Letterman

If it makes Kimmel feel (even) better, Irma Zandl of the trend-tracking Zandl Group doesn't foresee a difficult transition for the comic.

"I have always considered Jimmy Kimmel the Gen Y version of Jay Leno," Zandl says. "He has that Midwestern, down-to-earth humor that Leno represented without the Conan weirdness that has such limited appeal."

For what it's worth, O'Brien does hold a trump card, even if he now found on basic cable. At last look, his show's audience was at least a decade-and-a-half younger than Leno's, Letterman's and, yes, Kimmel's.

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