ABC denies 'Kimmel' slot shift

Speculation raises questions about 'Nightline's' future

ABC executives late Wednesday denied a published report that suggested ABC Entertainment was considering moving "Jimmy Kimmel Live" into the coveted 11:35 p.m. slot to go head-to-head with "The Tonight Show With Conan O'Brien."

The New York Times said Wednesday that the entertainment division "has held discussions" about the move but also quoted Disney-ABC Television Group president Anne Sweeney as saying that it was speculative and no move was contemplated this year. But it was another signal that "Nightline," which has survived many near-death experiences in the past decade, could be threatened even with the possibility that Jay Leno would join ABC removed.

An ABC source who declined to be identified said that there had been no conversations between the entertainment and news divisions about whether "Jimmy Kimmel Live" would move into the prized 11:35 p.m. slot.

"Zero," the executive said.

The report highlighted what seems to be a discord between ABC Entertainment and ABC News over the future of 11:35 p.m. While that has for nearly three decades been the province of "Nightline," ABC execs may see a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make hay against the late-night switch at NBC to O'Brien, who will be taking over for Leno when the latter moves to 10 p.m.

Kimmel, a favorite of ABC entertainment executives, is critically acclaimed but ratings challenged between 12:05 a.m. and 1:05 a.m. But when ABC was in the hunt for Leno before he signed a deal for the 10 p.m. slot on NBC, Kimmel seemed to have the upper hand to remain while "Nightline" likely would have been toast. At the very least, "Nightline" would have lost its 11:35 p.m. slot after late local news and more than likely wouldn't have been placed after an hourlong talk show.

It's not the first time that the plucky newsmagazine has been written off for dead. "Nightline" under Ted Koppel was imperiled in 2002 when the then-heads of the network tried to lure David Letterman away from CBS to compete directly against NBC's late-night talk king Leno. Koppel eventually left "Nightline," causing the show to once again be written off for dead. But in the three years under executive producer James Goldston and co-anchors Cynthia McFadden, Martin Bashir and Terry Moran, "Nightline" has been reborn: It has not only held audience but done the seemingly impossible, grown several times year-to-year in viewers and the demo. It's beaten "Late Show With David Letterman" seven weeks this season in viewership and adults 25-54, and even toppled perennial leader "Tonight" once.

"Nightline" was up 10% in the fourth quarter compared with a year ago, while Kimmel's show was down 3% in its time slot a half hour later. Kimmel's 1.8 million viewers at 12:05 a.m. ranks him sixth among all late-night programs, slightly behind "Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson" (1.9 million) but well ahead of "Later With Carson Daly" (1.1 million). "Nightline" in the fourth quarter was about even with Letterman for second place.