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Jimmy Kimmel on Fake Viral Videos, Real Money and the Future of TV

"We’re not in the business of making viral videos. We’re in the business of making a television show."

Jimmy Kimmel Live
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

You think a broadcast talk show host who’s got an uncanny ability to make stuff go viral on the Web is news?

Jimmy Kimmel has been doing it for years.

Kimmel’s recent fake videos — the wolf that didn’t really prowl the halls of the Sochi Olympics, the girl who didn’t really set herself aflame while twerking — are the most recent examples of his digital savvy. But he’s been displaying it for at least five years, when his show embraced YouTube; his official channel is just about to hit a billion views.

It’s sort of astonishing that we now take Kimmel’s success on the Web for granted: The idea of a broadcast TV star letting people watch his best stuff somewhere other than TV would have unthinkable just a few years ago. Now, it’s standard practice.

That doesn’t mean Kimmel, and his network employers at ABC, are entirely comfortable with the idea. They just know people want to watch Kimmel’s TV show — or parts of it, at least — on the Web, and that they’ll do it whether or not Kimmel helps them.

“You can’t fight it,” he told me yesterday, after rehearsing the first of five shows he’s doing this week from Austin, Texas. Here’s an edited version of our conversation.

Re/code: You’ve done two great prank videos so far. Are you going to do more?

Jimmy Kimmel: Yeah, probably.

I’ve heard people suggest that these will get harder for you to do, because people will catch on. But it seems like you can do them forever.

As long as people want to be the first one to post something, to get people to click through, it will be easy. If people start evaluating material, it will make it more difficult. [Laughs]. But I don’t see that happening. I don’t see us headed in that direction.

You’ve done videos where you’ve pranked people before, like showing fake iPhones to people on the street. And you used to do a show called “Crank Yankers.” It seems like pranks are part of your personality. But even though you say it’s not so, it seems like with these last two, you’re trying to comment on the media, and how easy it is to dupe us.

Not really. I leave those comments for others to make. I just think it’s funny. [Laughs] Really, that’s my only motivation. I’m not trying to embarrass anybody, or improve the process, or make commentary on the news media, or journalism. Those comments are obvious. I just do get a kick out of fooling people.

So since you can do it forever, do you have to pace it out, so you don’t get burned out?

You try to spread it out a little bit. I think that with pranks like these, you can only do so much planning. Because, like the twerking video — we put it on YouTube, and it just happened to catch fire. But sometimes you see a video, and it’s getting a lot of traction, and [it turns out] it’s from November 2010, and somebody just happened to find it and post it on Reddit, and it became popular.

It would be cheating, if we put it on our show, and presented it as a video we found.

You have an ethos about this — the fake video has to be a real viral hit.

Yeah. Otherwise it’s too easy.

The thing with Sochi — I just thought it was interesting. People were posting pictures of a glass of water, and declaring the city to be radioactive, based on that. And I thought, “Well, this came from a journalist so I guess we can trust it somewhat.” But, I’ve been in hotels — in my house I’ve had glasses of water come out looking like that. It doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s a widespread health problem.

And it was interesting hearing about the dogs roaming through the empty buildings. And I was just curious to see — you know, there are no wolves in Sochi.


Trust me, I know this because I did exhaustive research, trying to figure out what color the wolf should be. There are no wolves in Sochi!

“Exhaustive research” is Google, right?

And asking people who know about animals, and where they live. We finally settled on a white wolf, because it seemed most likely. But I searched the words “wolf” and “Sochi” in Russian, and translated it back into English — I get very involved in these pranks.

I saw a story that wondered whether it was okay for you to prank the media because you’re on ABC, and ABC has a news outlet. Does anyone at the network talk to you about this stuff?

No, as a matter of fact, we didn’t tell them about either one of those. Because quite frankly we don’t trust them. We didn’t tell them until we launched it. We try to keep it really small. People will tell other people — even if they’re not trying to ruin the prank, just because they think it’s funny. I’ve found that the fewer people that know, the better off you are.

I saw both of your pranks online, but I never saw the original show they aired on. I assume that at some point, you want me to start watching the show. Or are you okay if I just watch clips online?

No. There’s a give and take. The good part is people become more aware of you, and what you’re doing on your show. The bad part is that — it’s like the same thing that happened to the music industry. You can buy a single on iTunes for $1.29, and you don’t buy the whole album. When I was a teenager, you bought the whole album.

But there’s really nothing you can do about it. You can’t fight it. The fact of the matter is we make a lot more money from putting the show on television than we do from putting it online.

It seems like you embraced the idea of putting the show online from the get-go. You were doing YouTube stuff fairly early.

It wasn’t by design, and it wasn’t some brilliant plan on my part, or on any of our parts. What happened is, we made the “fxxking Matt Damon” and “fxxking Ben Affleck” videos, and thousands of people posted them on YouTube. And some people got 30 million views. And we figured, it would be better if we could at least put those on a website that we’re in control of, so the quality of the video is good, and it’s presented the way we want to present it.

So we just started our YouTube channel for that reason alone. And it’s grown — it’s got almost a billion views.

Jimmy Fallon — or at least his team — gets a lot of credit for the stuff they’re doing, which seems almost designed to create viral videos. Have you been watching what he’s been doing?

Yeah, of course.

And what do you think of that approach, where it seems like they’re creating stuff for the Web, from the start?

Well, I don’t know if they are. I think a lot of people think we’re doing that, too. And that’s never true. I always remind our staff, and our writers, that we’re not in the business of making viral videos. We’re in the business of making a television show. And if these things lend themselves to the Internet, then great. But that’s not our intent.

How long do you think you can be in the business of making a television show instead of making things for the Web, when there’s a generation of people raised on Web video, and who are leaving college and not getting cable?

I think there will always be an audience for late night broadcast television talk shows. It’s just going to get smaller and smaller. And maybe older and older as it goes on. The fact of the matter is, the amount of money we make from selling commercials on television, is 100 times as much from what we make from people watching our YouTube videos. And until those things even out somewhat, we’re going to be focused on television.

Do you think you’ll be on TV when that happens? Or do you think you’ll have left by then?

I don’t know. I don’t know. I love the idea of doing very niche programming, and eventually I think that’s something I’ll do.

Separate from this show?

Yeah. But I think we still have a good five, six, seven years of broadcast television being something that people watch in big numbers.

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