Tonight on CNN: “Ratings Grab” with Eliot Spitzer

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The Most Trusted Name in News is putting it’s prime time show in the hands of a guy who broke laws at night that he enforced by day.

Phil Donahue accused MSNBC of trying to “out-fox Fox” when it fired him in 2003.  He meant it as a slight to MSNBC’s political leanings, but it goes a little deeper than that. Fox’s format is based on a complement of breaking news during the day (often car chases and such) and heavy opinion and analysis during primetime.  (It should be noted that Donahue was 175 at the time MSNBC canceled him, though.)

There’s the formula for news success in primetime.  Fox got to the top of the ratings with O’Reilly and Hannity and Colmes (before Colmes bounced); MSNBC – which was all but dead in the early 2000s – rebounded with Olbermann and Maddow on the other side of the aisle.

Neither network’s success is purely ideological – each of those four programs features strong, unique personalities.  News channel viewers aren’t looking for news at all; they’re looking for people they either love or love to hate. Enter the Love Gov – who, despite the fact that he’ll be sitting opposite a Pulitzer Prize winner, will be the headliner on what is ostensibly a news show.

But will another personality show succeed?

If everyone in a shopping mall is selling shoes, and you open up a new shoe store, folks are going to need a compelling reason to leave their existing shoe store and come to yours – especially since they already have so many options.  And selling the same types of shoes as every other store doesn’t give you an advantage.  So the new show will have to have more than just a controversial name to bring in viewers.

Of course, if Spitzer interviews Marion Barry every now and then, CNN might have ratings gold on their hands.

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