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) SandersCongress closer to forcing Trump’s hand on Saudi support Booker seeks dialogue about race as he kicks off 2020 campaign Capitalism: The known ideal MORE (I-Vt.) and Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzEl Chapo's lawyer fires back at Cruz: 'Ludicrous' to suggest drug lord will pay for wall Democrats have a chance of beating Trump with Julian Castro on the 2020 ticket Poll shows competitive matchup if O’Rourke ran for Senate again 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 RyanUnscripted Trump keeps audience guessing in Rose Garden Coulter defends Paul Ryan: This is 100 percent Trump's fault The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Kidney Care Partners — Trump escalates border fight with emergency declaration MORE and House Minority Speaker Nancy Pelosi in these settings. Perhaps a Cory Booker or Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenWarren set to announce plan for universal child care: reports Barack, Michelle Obama expected to refrain from endorsing in 2020 Dem primary: report Booker seeks dialogue about race as he kicks off 2020 campaign MORE or Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenVirginia can be better than this Harris off to best start among Dems in race, say strategists, donors Virginia scandals pit Democrats against themselves and their message MORE or John Kasich or Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceChina accuses US of trying to block development after Pence Huawei comments Kamala Harris shopping trip stirs Twitter campaign trail debate Pence met with silence after mentioning Trump in Munich speech 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 RubioRubio in Colombia to push for delivery of humanitarian aid to Venezuela On unilateral executive action, Mitch McConnell was right — in 2014 On The Money: Trump declares emergency at border | Braces for legal fight | Move divides GOP | Trump signs border deal to avoid shutdown | Winners, losers from spending fight | US, China trade talks to resume next week 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.