Are you ready for the late-night television wars to heat up?

by Colin McGuire. 0 Comments

Does anybody remember when Rolling Stone used to be printed on the nice, broad paper that would be useless if it happened to be raining on the day your postman delivered the thing? Ahhh, those were the days. Music criticism was valued. Long, sprawling pieces on your favorite artists were as rare as 90-degree temperatures in January. And most importantly, the address tag could be ripped off without doing harm to the cover itself. These days, you have to tear the thing in half just to get the words “Colin” and “McGuire” off it. Or, well, you have to if you’re me. But you’re not. And, really, you should be happy about that. Promise.

Anyway, have you caught the latest issue? You know — the one with ABC’s Savior Of Late-Night Television Jimmy Kimmel on the cover and some extensive profile of Don Johnson, of all people, promising to be inside? You’ve seen it, right? Good.

Kimmel is making quite a bit of news this week as his late-night gab-fest makes the move from midnight to 11:35 p.m. on Tuesday. After a year of being made a star (darling, a star!) by everyone from Stu Scott to Mickey Mouse at ABC, the comedian is set to venture into uncharted territory by going head-to-head with the two biggest names late-night TV has seen in the last quarter of a century, Mr. Letterman and Mr. Leno (or as we shall now forever refer to them as, L Squared).

My favorite writer in the history of the planet, Lisa de Moraes, who for reasons I can’t quite grasp seems to like Kimmel far more than I ever thought anyone could, wrote about it Friday. And because we haven’t quoted her in a little while, how about we have a look …

“Kimmel’s move has been ABC-parent Disney’s best-choreographed debut since ‘The Lion King’ opened at the New Amsterdam Theatre on Broadway in the late ’90s,” she wrote. “When ‘Jimmy Kimmel Live’ debuted Jan. 26, 2003, the rumpled, sallow-skinned couch potato eschewed opening monologues, refused to wear a suit or tie, and had been heard to say, ‘I would kill myself if I was forced to interview C-level celebrities and pretend to be interested in them.’ Members of the studio audience were served alcohol, but ABC 86’d the booze after a woman in the audience vomited during the premiere. In 2004, when a guest swore and the ABC Decency Police failed to catch it in time, the network insisted the show be taped early in the evening like other late-night broadcasts. The show’s name became ironic.”

And as we all know by now, irony sells.

The late-night television world has been awfully fascinating over the last decade, wouldn’t you say? Kimmel defies all the rules by starting a show on ABC a half-hour after his most prominent predecessors and a half-hour before his most reasonable competitors. The whole Conan thing happens. One-half of L Squared tries to sell the idea of this kind of show working in the 10 p.m. time slot. And Craig Ferguson essentially redefines what can be expected when tuning in to the 12:30-to-1:30-a.m. hour of late-night television. I mean, is it me, or has this stuff never been more … dramatic?

Odd, for an industry that has been fueled by talking to people making money from being good at drama. The Kimmel move sweetens the pot. ABC has been doing everything in its power to be a respected player in the late-night wars for years now, and after almost a decade of grooming, it’s ready to seriously insert itself into the conversation. The biggest loser, of course, is “Nightline,” the half-hour TV news-mag that was actually holding its own until this star-making plan began to surface and subsequently unfold. How dare this pudgy comedian push actual news out the door?!

Kimmel might do pretty good for himself, though. On a lot of levels, this entire concoction is the antithesis to how NBC handled the Leno/Conan debacle a few years ago. For as badly as ABC was rumored to initially want either part of L Squared when the network decided to work toward being a player in the after-hours world of TV more than 10 years ago, it managed to pluck this particular dude from relative obscurity when “JKL” first took off. Sure, he had his Comedy Central show drawing a tiny bit of traction, but lest we forget the time — believe it or not — when his wing-man, Adam Carolla, was the bigger name on whatever bill the two guys shared. Rumor has it that sales of “My friend hosts a popular talk show, and all I got was this lousy podcast” T-Shirt have skyrocketed on Carolla’s website since this announcement.

OK. That’s not true.

In any case, it’s all over now but the waiting. There were a lot of reasons Conan’s time-slot change didn’t work. One of those reasons, some argued, was the fact that he became more accessible and his brand of humor became somewhat compromised. That led to low ratings, which led to rumbles of Leno wanting his show back, which let to … well, you get it. I’ve often wondered about how the Irishman’s show would have done if he was given more than six-and-a-half minutes to get his feet under him. Kimmel will benefit from not having another, more established TV personality breathing down his neck while he makes the leap, but it shouldn’t go unnoticed that if there was one show/situation comparable to this particular move, it would of course be Conan’s. There was a little edge that many say Max Weinberg’s favorite gab-host lost during his attempt to cross into the early late-night hours. Kimmel insists his show won’t fall victim to the same kind of softness that turned some longtime fans away from Conan, but only time can really provide insight into that.

“Everyone is better than Leno,” Kimmel said to New York magazine during his most recent press blitz that has oddly seen the comedian use every opportunity he can find to trash the big-chinned host. He might be right.

OK. Well. He’s probably right.

But even with that said, one question remains as we head into Tuesday night’s Kimmel kick-off: Will being better than his competition matter … if nobody ever sees it?

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