CNN may have found its next primetime star
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But its not a person or running another retrospective documentary on a decade.

Instead, it's a town hall featuring X, Y, or X vs. Y.

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With last Friday marking the fifth Town Hall the network has featured in 2017 and second this week alone, it's clear what CNN's focus is for the foreseeable future: All-things-politics in the Trump era.

 

Considering that almost every outlet appears to be benefiting from the rollercoaster ride that is the non-stop reality show of a truculent, turbulent Trump presidency, it's the right move given how engaged Americans left and right are in the theater of it all right now.

CNN's first four town halls performed exceptionally well relative to regular programming, with the fourth on Tuesday  an intriguing cross-party debate on the future of ObamaCare between polar opposites Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersHannity snaps back at 'Crybaby' Todd: 'Only conservatives have to disclose relationships?' Chuck Todd lashes out at Fox, defends wife in radio interview Trump pressed Sessions to fire FBI agents who sent anti-Trump texts: report MORE (I-Vt.) and Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzCruz's Dem challenger slams Time piece praising Trump Race for Republican Speaker rare chance to unify party for election 32 male senators back Senate women's calls to change harassment rules MORE (R-Texas). The station won the night in the key 25-54 demographic advertisers covet most.

For CNN, that almost never occurs lately against Fox News at night, especially with Tucker Carlson actually improving on former cable news queen Megyn Kelly's ratings at 9:00 p.m. ET (Kelly finished #2 in the cable news race in 2016, only behind "The O'Reilly Factor"). Outside of big breaking news events and special programming (like a town hall), Fox simply isn't going to be beaten in primetime as long as Bill O'Reilly, Carlson and Sean Hannity are the options as Nielsen numbers show night after night in convincing fashion.

But there are only so many politicians who can help draw eyeballs to the tube on a regular basis. CNN has already featured Sanders-Cruz, Sanders solo, House Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanScalise released from hospital after planned surgery GOP sold Americans a bill of goods with tax reform law Impeaching Rosenstein? Some Republicans are talking about it MORE and House Minority Speaker Nancy Pelosi in these settings. Perhaps a Cory Booker or Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenDem senators demand Trump explain ties to Koch brothers 'Fearless Girl' statue to be moved away from Wall Street bull Sanders, Warren, O’Rourke inspire patriotic small donor waves MORE or Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenOvernight Cybersecurity: Fallout from Comey memos | IG reportedly investigating memos over classified info | DNC sues Russia, Trump campaign | GOP chair blasts FDIC over data security Why Smokin' Joe leads the pack of 2020 Democratic hopefuls Pawlenty to announce bid for Minnesota governor MORE or John Kasich or Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceOvernight Health Care: GOP in retreat on ObamaCare | Drug pricing fight heads to the states | PhRMA spends record amount on lobbying Appeals court: Indiana abortion law signed by Mike Pence unconstitutional Top LGBT group targets Pence in new campaign MORE could draw viewers in the future, but the household political names are few and far between to keep this pace going on any consistent basis.

The guess here is that Warren (D-MA) is on CNN's shortlist for a town hall given the 2020 buzz around her possible candidacy against a president who repeatedly refers to her as "Pocahontas," calling into question Warren's claim of being partially of Indian descent. (She could also be on MSNBC's list for that matter. That station has an event with Sanders planned for Monday, Feb. 13)

Warren alone would be ratings gold for sure, but a matchup between her and, say, a Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioStudents gather outside White House after walkout to protest gun violence Overnight Energy: Senate confirms Bridenstine as NASA chief | Watchdog probes Pruitt’s use of security detail | Emails shine light on EPA science policy changes Senate confirms Trump’s pick to lead NASA MORE (R-Fla.) would absolutely qualify as Must-See-TV.

Friday night's offering featuring HBO "Real Time" provocateur Bill Maher offered a peak into another reservoir CNN – a Time Warner-owned network – may be able to tap into.

After all, what prevents CNN President Jeff Zucker from picking up a phone and asking popular "Last Week Tonight" host John Oliver to take part in a town hall down the road? HBO is also under the Time Warner umbrella, as is TBS. And on that network, the consistently viral Samantha Bee hosted a weekly program there, as does late-night veteran Conan O'Brien on a nightly basis. 

That even opens the potential of the polarizing (to be generous) Lena Dunham -- the politically-active star of HBO's "Girls" -- against, say, Tomi Lahren of the Blaze in a battle forthright female millennials that any network could charge $100 to watch and make a fortune in the process. 

The Hill's Senior Director of Audience and Strategy, Neetzan Zimmerman, offered up even more compelling matchups certain to draw big audiences. 

"How about Brian Fallon vs. Corey Lewandowski? Or Milo (Yiannopoulos) vs. a Women's March organizer? Or Martin Shkreli vs. a member of the Wu-Tang Clan?" Zimmerman asked in an email response.

So many possibilities, such a big platform for anyone asked to turn down.

CNN and MSNBC town halls. Once a periodic event could now become a regular offering, but the right people need to be tapped to make it truly successful.

Joe Concha is a media reporter for The Hill.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.