Thoughts and Prayers for Jimmy Kimmel

Integrity is not good for one’s career prospects on network television.

You have to think that ABC executives are beside themselves with anxiety due to Jimmy Kimmel’s courageous condemnations of the Republican Party’s firearms fetish–especially so soon after he called out the GOP’s fixation on snatching health care from millions of Americans. Outside of ABC headquarters, Kimmel is being hailed as a bold truth-teller, willing to go further than most actual journalists will in terms of laying the blame for our country’s seemingly intractable problems right where it belongs. Inside ABC headquarters, however, Kimmel must surely be viewed as the ultimate corporate headache.

You may have heard about CBS firing an attorney who controversially suggested on Facebook that the victims of the violence in Vegas were Republicans who probably opposed gun control. It’s fairly obvious that CBS got rid of that attorney in part because her remarks played into the right-wing stereotype of the “Tiffany network” being the home of liberal elitists. It’s also fairly obvious that ABC also fears playing into that stereotype–and Kimmel’s remarks about the Vegas shooting, while accurate and profound, don’t help his network’s curious cause.

In the 1990s, ABC threw Ellen DeGeneres under the bus when she ran afoul of right-wing sensibilities on sexuality. In the 2000s, ABC threw Bill Maher under the bus when he ran afoul of right-wing sensibilities on the so-called War on Terror. Why would Kimmel not suffer the same fate–especially now that Donald Trump is taking veiled shots at him on Twitter?

Having strong ratings means nothing if you’ve ticked off management: go ask Cenk Uygur, whose MSNBC show was killing it in the ratings before executives furious at Uygur’s aggressive attacks on the political class effectively killed the show off. As Taylor Link notes, it’s not even clear that Kimmel’s ratings will remain strong:

According to a 2015 survey commissioned by The Hollywood Reporter, a full 41 percent of late-night viewers said that they preferred Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in the presidential election.

But only one host in that poll attracted the same number of Republican and Democratic viewers: ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel. While Stephen Colbert’s audience skewed heavily Democrat (47 percent Democrat to 17 percent Republican), Kimmel fans were evenly split among the two major parties (34 percent Democrat to 33 percent Republican).

The findings were not exactly shocking. Kimmel’s career has been defined by his everyman personality and juvenile, dudebro humor. The guy relishes teasing the Hollywood elite, foreigners vacationing in L.A. and other commonly conservative targets. He talks sports fluently, recites his favorite recipes from memory and generally seems like someone all Americans would like to have a beer with. More than that, he flouts political correctness and boasts of his nonpartisanship whenever possible. If you had to declare one host the quasi-conservative in the left-leaning late-night landscape, it would have to be Kimmel.

But right now, he’s putting all that — and his ratings — on the line for a nominally progressive cause…

Kimmel may have also alienated some of his conservative viewers in the process. President Trump’s supporters enjoy mocking liberal safe spaces, but when a public person ridicules or critiques the current commander in chief, they often cry foul and boycott the messenger. Their flight may have already begun. “Jimmy Kimmel Live” had 2.04 million viewers last week during the heart of his health care fight, a 5 percent drop from his average. For the show’s future, it’s more than appreciable…

Granted, late-night TV ratings are fluid and often depend on the quality of guests in a given week. Not to mention that one of the hosts, Colbert, had just returned from a hiatus after hosting the Emmys, so “The Late Show” could have syphoned off some of Kimmel’s audience. As well, all of late-night experienced a ratings drop last week, and, as a result, it may be premature to make any assumptions off of one data point.

Yet, as small and possibly fleeting as that drop may be, it would be more than appreciable to any network executive concerned about the impact of Kimmel’s newfound advocacy. And besides, there’s just no doubt that Kimmel is risking losing some of his loyal viewers over the long term by championing a cause that defies Trump and the Republican Party in the present.

The last thing ABC wants is to be perceived as the “We Hate Republicans” network. That’s why they washed their hands of DeGeneres nearly twenty years ago. That’s why they washed their hands of Maher fifteen years ago. That’s why they will inevitably wash their hands of Kimmel.

MSNBC infamously removed Phil Donahue from the airwaves in 2003 because he was “a difficult public face for [the network] in a time of war.” Kimmel’s bravery makes him a difficult public face for ABC in a time of culture war. The days of ABC being willing to air programming challenging right-wing assumptions (such as the 1983 nuclear-war TV movie The Day After, a film Donald Trump ought to watch) are, as Steely Dan famously said, gone forever, over a long time ago. That’s the lesson DeGeneres and Maher learned. Kimmel will learn that lesson too.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.