Hammer Time for Headline News

By Gail Shister 

Gail Shister
TVNewser Columnist

Thanks, Britney. Thanks, Lindsay. Thanks, Paris.

Fueled by the never-ending spigot of celebrity bad behavior, Showbiz Tonight is doing boffo box office for CNN Headline News.

How boffo?

Year to date, SBT viewership is up a whopping 64% over the same period in 2006 — the most growth of ANY cable news show in that span, according to HLN.

Reality check: Even with a 64% spike, SBT only averages 349,000 total viewers and usually finishes fourth in the 11pmEt-to-midnight slot.

David Levine, exec producer of SBT since its February ’05 revival, says the decision to revamp the taped show’s format a year ago was the impetus for its growth. (The original SBT ran live on CNN from 1984 to Sept. 10, 2001.)

“At the beginning, we’d say, ‘If it happened today, it will be on Showbiz Tonight,'” says Levine, an MSNBC alum. “Now, it’s ‘TV’s most provocative entertainment news show.'”

“We conform the show to what we know works in the cable news universe. Controversy works.”

Ergo, barely a day goes by without the mention of the Terrible Troika (Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton.) Or, as Levine calls them, “the gift that keeps on giving.”

Current host A.J. Hammer says SBT “can actually go a whole night without mentioning them, believe it or not.” Still, Hammer can’t actually remember the last time it happened.

No matter. “Young Hollywood will always be part of entertainment news, no matter who the players are. There are always players.”

A.J. Hammer (he picked up the stage name as a New York City DJ 18 years ago) says he’s frequently asked if he’s kin to ex-hip hopper M.C. Hammer.

Ya think?

“I tell them he’s my third cousin, twice removed,” says A.J., tongue firmly in cheek.