LOS ANGELES — "Jimmy Kimmel Live" is moving into the thick of the late-night fight against Jay Leno and David Letterman, ABC said Tuesday, bumping "Nightline" from its longtime perch.
Starting in January, Kimmel's talk show will shift from 12:05 a.m. Eastern to the 11:35 p.m. Eastern time period long held by the newsmagazine, taking advantage of Kimmel's ratings growth and the potential for greater ad revenue, the network said.
"Nightline" will move to 12:35 a.m. Eastern. ABC softened the blow for its news division by giving the half-hour show a weekly prime-time hour starting in March, and also will find a home for the ABC News series "What Would You Do?"
The network is rolling the dice, taking ratings winner "Nightline" out of a competitive time slot and putting in yet another talk show. Besides network rivals Leno and Letterman, the hour is home to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central, Conan O'Brien on TBS and Chelsea Handler on E! Entertainment.
Kimmel said he is ready for the challenge.
"The most exciting thing is having a bigger audience," he said. "You work all day on the show and you want as many people to see you as possible."
Letterman graciously welcomed him to the fray.
"The more the merrier. We like Jimmy, we know he'll do a fine program, and we wish him well," he said in a statement.
Kimmel, newly engaged to Molly McNearney, his show's co-head writer, and set to host next month's Emmy Awards, is having a run of good fortune. But the droll comedian wouldn't admit to savoring it.
"My way of thinking is when all these good things happen, it means something terrible will happen," he said. "I'm cautiously pessimistic."
"Jimmy Kimmel Live" and "Nightline" will switch late-night slots on Jan. 8, and the news magazine will debut in prime time on March 1.
"Given the passionate fan base 'Jimmy Kimmel Live' has built over the past decade, and the show's ratings and creative momentum this season, the time is right to make this move," Anne Sweeney, co-chair, Disney Media Networks and president, Disney-ABC Television Group, said in a statement.
Kimmel's show increased its viewership by 3 percent last season, the only such growth among network late-night talk shows, ABC said.
"Nightline," however, has been a consistently strong performer in its 11:35 p.m. slot, averaging 3.9 million viewers to best both NBC's "Tonight Show" with Leno and CBS' "Late Show" with Letterman.
But there is more advertiser demand for entertainment programming at that hour, Sweeney said, creating the opportunity for "far greater upside over the long term."
Several years ago ABC made another attempt to get entertainment programming in the time slot by unsuccessfully trying to get Letterman to move from CBS. The attempt caused some unrest within ABC News, as then-"Nightline" host Ted Koppel resisted being displaced.
What became "Nightline" originated in November 1979 as 15-minute updates on the Iranian hostage crisis airing nightly at 11:30 p.m. Titled "The Iran Crisis — America Held Hostage," this late-night newscast was greeted by many viewers as a welcome alternative to NBC's "Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson."
Last season, Letterman averaged 3.22 million viewers; Leno, 3.71 million; "Nightline," 3.89 million; and Kimmel, 1.8 million. The talk-show figures include the second half-hour that includes drowsy audience drop-off.
"'Nightline' has proven its ability to grow over three decades on the air with the show currently enjoying some of its highest ratings and best editorial work ever," Ben Sherwood, president of ABC News, said in a statement.
He said the news magazine welcomed the chance to produce a prime-time hour for a new audience and expressed confidence it will "enjoy many successes for years to come."
The changeover's timing is in part a function of politics. "Nightline" is a piece of ABC News' general election coverage, and ABC stations and affiliates will be beneficiaries of the ad dollars spent on campaign spots being placed around "Nightline" and other news shows.
ABC also sees two good platforms to promote Kimmel in January. Besides its "New Year's Rockin' Eve" broadcast, it will call on sister network ESPN's five-game Bowl Championship series, which ends on Jan. 7, to showcase his new-slot debut the next night.
Asked his reaction to winning the coveted new time slot, Kimmel invoked the memory of Conan O'Brien's ill-fated move to "Tonight' at NBC. It ended when the network tried to return the slot to Leno; O'Brien bolted to a new show at TBS and Leno reclaimed "Tonight."
"I was skeptical," Kimmel said, dryly. "You know how this goes in late-night television. Sometimes they tell you you're on at 11:30 and sometimes it doesn't work out. But I think it will work out."
He doesn't expect to make any changes in the show for the new time slot.
"I may get a tummy tuck," he said.
Leno can attest to the continuing vagaries of late-night work: On Friday, "Tonight" laid off about two-dozen workers and Leno accepted a pay cut to spare other staffers as NBC Universal cut down on expenses under new owner Comcast Corp.
It became comic fodder on Monday's show.
"Welcome to the 'Tonight' show, or as Comcast calls us, 'The Expendables,'" Leno joked in his monologue. "I knew something was going on. Friday morning I woke up and there was a Peacock head in my bed."
• Television Writers David Bauder and Frazier Moore in New York contributed to this report.