ABC has always been more thoughtful when it came to setting up a late-night lineup. Prior to the late 1960s, nobody dared even think about competing with "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" on NBC, including ABC, where nothing but dead air existed at that hour. But even with ABC's ill-fated "The Joey Bishop Show" (with a sidekick named Regis Philbin) starting at 11:30PM in 1967, ABC was quick to regroup with the more intellectual "The Dick Cavett Show" that had no chance against the more populist Carson.
Regardless, ABC never lost the point of view that there was always going to be an audience for more serious conversation. All it took was a late-night news special hosted by the peculiarly haired one, Ted Koppel, to change everything for ABC by the 1980s. When Koppel anchored an all-nighter on the Iran hostage crisis in 1979, it was the first time in history that Johnny Carson was challenged in the late-night ratings war.
"Nightline" went on to become the only challenger to the concept that late night on the mainstream networks had to be nothing but comedy. This isn't to say ABC didn't decide that a little subversive comedy on Friday nights wasn't the way toward a new goal in late night. Once sketch-oriented "Fridays" took over in the late-night slot on Friday nights in 1979, the counter to "Nightline" began, despite being an ultimate failure up against Carson's Friday night shows.
ABC had simply turned into a perceived intellectual network feigning hipness with a mirrored "Saturday Night Live" already extant on NBC. The only real balance that worked for ABC in that arena was "Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher" and starting in 1997, 30 minutes after a half-hour "Nightline." This, however, was before the era of people tuning in to a comedy show to consolidate the daily news as they do now with "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and "The Colbert Report."
The transition of "Politically Incorrect" to "Jimmy Kimmel Live" was one that might have seemed like an initial comedown for ABC. In the near 10 years "Kimmel" has been on the air, you could argue it coasted along for half of its run, merely because ABC had nothing else in mind for a replacement. Yet the second half drastically improved, thanks in part to social media disseminating Kimmel's comedy bits into the cyber universe.
If you have to praise "Jimmy Kimmel Live" for anything, it's those comedy bits that turn into sound bites online and show up on cable news shows. Conversely, Kimmel's interviews and monologue have always coasted on being mediocre, despite gradual improvement with witty interview interactions. It's a show that ultimately caught up with the Internet era to allow it to thrive.
Even if Leno, Letterman, and Conan know how to create sound bites for news shows, Kimmel is, so far, the true king of online comedy bites. In that regard, ABC may have hit the jackpot moving Kimmel to 11:35PM where he has the advantage of being younger than any of the other late night hosts.
And after 45 years of struggling in late night TV, ABC has every right to enact revenge on the NBC late-night institution that now seems to be in trouble.