Jimmy Kimmel says he expects to settle in at third place in the ratings behind Jay Leno and David Letterman, even as one week of direct competition suggests a healthy competition.
There were backstage smiles at Kimmel's Los Angeles studio Friday after Nielsen ratings showed the ABC comic had his largest audience ever on Thursday. This is the first week for "Jimmy Kimmel Live" in the 11:35 p.m. time slot, directly competing with Leno on NBC and Letterman on CBS.
Kimmel announced that Matt Damon would be a guest on his Jan. 24 show — really. Damon's been the subject of a long-running joke, with Kimmel frequently joking at the end of his show that he ran out of time and couldn't get Damon on the air as planned.
"People like the drama of late night — 'Who will be the king of late night?'" Kimmel said. "Johnny Carson retired with the crown. There will be no king of late night anymore."
Kimmel finished second behind Leno in viewership Tuesday, his first night in the time slot, and third the next two nights. ABC looks most closely at the 18- to 49-year-old demographic, however. Among those youthful viewers, Kimmel finished second to Leno on Tuesday, virtually tied with him Wednesday, and won handily Thursday, Nielsen said. He gained in young viewers each of the three nights.
The numbers are close. Among all viewers Thursday, Leno was seen by 3.4 million people, Letterman by 3.29 million and Kimmel by 3.17 million, Nielsen said.
"It's an encouraging start for them," said Brad Adgate, researcher at Horizon Media. "This is something where they aren't looking at the first week. They're looking at a year from now, three years from now, five years from now when Leno and Letterman may leave their desks."
Kimmel, whose show spent a decade airing a half hour later, said he didn't explicitly push ABC to move him up. But he did let his bosses know he was ready. Asked when he let them know, he joked, "probably the first night."
The later time slot had benefit, though.
"It allowed me time to develop, instead of what usually happens, which is you have to develop the show under the hot spotlight," he said.
Damon was part of a turning point for him. When the actor performed in a lewdly titled short film with Kimmel's then-girlfriend, Sarah Silverman, it got a great buzz and directed attention to the program.
Kimmel said Letterman called to wish him well in his new time slot. Leno hasn't, although that's not a surprise: Kimmel is firmly in the Letterman camp as a fan and has been sharply critical of Leno.
"You can't discount the legacy the 'Tonight' show has had and how ingrained it is in people's habits," Kimmel said. "You can't discount that. We were No. 1 last night (in the young demographic), but don't get used to it."
Some high-profile Kimmel assignments during the past year, including speaking the White House Correspondents' Association dinner, prepared him for the move, said Jill Lederman, the show's executive producer.
"There were so many things that happened for him last year that we felt there was this groundswell of support," Lederman said. "Every time he had one of those opportunities he did a beautiful job, he executed it so seamlessly. That has ushered us into a whole new chapter of this show's life."