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Late-Night TV On The Web

Jimmy Kimmel pepped up his post-Oscar special on ABC with a little help from some hotties Ethan Hawke, Patrick Dempsey, Matthew McConaughey and Sting in a "Handsome Men's Club" skit.

It was a memorable moment in late-night TV. But to a certain extent, television was beside the point. Kimmel's monologue is long forgotten, but the "Handsome Men's Club" lives on.

Kimmel's club was built to last, judging by the segment's life online. On YouTube alone, it has been seen more than 1.8 million times.

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In only a couple of years and after much soul-searching by network executives, the Internet has transformed the late-night television experience. Staying up past midnight and switching channels trying to stay awake during the commercials? That's your dad's way to watch.

With a few mouse clicks one morning last week, it was possible to watch Jay Leno's monologue from the night before, along with David Letterman's Top 10 list, Tina Fey telling Tracy Morgan stories, Jimmy Fallon using the words of angry conservative talk show hosts in an audience karaoke contest and Kimmel interviewing actress Gabrielle Union.

"The good news for NBC is I never miss an episode of `Saturday Night Live,'" said Steve Farella, CEO of the media firm TargetCast tcm. "The bad news for NBC is that I never stay up anymore."

Making the comic material available online was a tough decision for the networks. They want their stars to have buzz, and you can't do that offline. Yet if you make it to easy for people to see either a full episode or cull the best bits, viewership could plummet and so could the rates paid by advertisers, networks' chief source of revenue.

"Certainly, there has been plenty of hand-wringing over the years," said Vivi Zigler, head of NBC's digital unit.

Testing is ongoing, but so far the conclusion is that online release of video clips or the full programs doesn't cut into viewership for the programs themselves.

As much as a quarter of the people watching online actually saw it on TV the night before and wanted to see it again, Zigler said. The clips work as advertisements; given the choice, network executives continue to believe that fans much prefer watching programs from their living rooms or bedrooms than on a laptop or chair in front of a TV screen.

"What we see is that the online experience is helping us build the audience, rather than cannibalizing it," said Mike Benson, head of marketing at ABC. "Because they see these things and they think they're so funny, they decide they want to watch the show at night."

That's an important marketing tool for ABC, particularly since Kimmel comes on the air later than Leno and Letterman, as well as Comedy Central's Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Kimmel and his producers have been active in creating standalone films, as opposed to just offering reruns of interviews and monologues.

A music video involving Kimmel's then-girlfriend Sarah Silverman and Matt Damon, along with the "Saturday Night Live" 'Lazy Sunday' clip are pioneering examples of skits that reached far beyond the show in which they were seen.

Most of these shows have a relatively short shelf life so it's important to get use out of them; a Jon Stewart riff on a political story of the day doesn't have as much resonance as a repeat several months later, said Erik Flanagan, executive vice president for digital media at Comedy Central.

If networks don't make it available themselves, and try to capitalize with advertising, people will find it elsewhere, he said.

"These are shows that live in the zeitgeist and when they break on through, it's something that everybody wants to see," Flanagan said.

Networks aren't just making material available after it appeared. Sometimes NBC will pinpoint a moment from Leno or Fallon's shows and send them to Web sites such as the Huffington Post between 10 and 11 p.m. ET in the hope that it goes viral, Zigler said. NBC will also send clips to Facebook and urge people to share them with friends.

Joshua Weinberger, a writer from New York City, said he watches Craig Ferguson's show, but only after capturing it on his digital video recorder. He keeps up with other late-night stars online. Through Twitter and e-mail accounts, networks will often contact him with links.

"It's becoming that I no longer have to go out and find my own things," Weinberger said.

The calculation for the networks is their late-night stars are brands that must be promoted, no matter how consumers happen upon them.

That may be wise for now but, Farella notes, the game could change rapidly when technology allows people to easily capture things off the computer and play them on their 50-inch living room TV screens. Then there would be even less incentive to watch the full programs.

"It's all a grand experiment," Comedy Central's Flanagan said. "Things are moving so quickly that predicting which way it goes is really just a waste of time"

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