Does Trump want to be that upstart? His campaign denies that discussions about a network are in the works, and it’s not clear what would happen if Trump won the White House. But Philip Napoli, a Rutgers University professor who studies media, thinks a Trump channel could draw an audience, at least at first. The Trump camp’s relationship with Fox News—the back-and-forth between war(s) and peace—proved something: “You can further segment the conservative-news audience, [and] there’s a sizeable segment” Trump could use “to position a network in opposition to Fox News.” Presumably, Trump’s channel would feature the same opinion-based coverage other partisan news networks do. “Even old Fox News didn’t have the right read on what the base is,” one source told Vanity Fair. “And we do.”
A network would be a natural conclusion to Trump’s campaign, were he to lose in November. He was a TV star before, with NBC’s Celebrity Apprentice. And he has spent the better part of the last year on air, granting interviews to reporters he claims to despise and having his campaign events widely broadcast. It’s difficult to see Trump giving up the limelight. Discussions of a network “would mark perhaps the most reasonable and logical step that the candidate has taken in the year since he launched his candidacy,” The Washington Post quipped on Thursday, citing Trump’s past “discomfort” with the notion that he’s helped TV executives make money during his campaign and can’t take a cut himself.
Trump would certainly have some good things going for him if he were to launch a channel or “mini-media conglomerate”—another vaguely defined venture he’s reportedly considering. For one, Trump voters tend to be older and whiter than the general population, just like cable-news viewers. Napoli can envision Trump “cannibalizing” the Fox News audience and, in the angry aftermath of a Hillary Clinton victory, being a “voice for all these disaffected and disappointed voters who didn’t get what they wanted.” Napoli suggested that partisan media becomes more popular when the targeted audience’s party isn’t in power, which would work to Trump’s advantage. As a Republican-friendly network, Fox News would no doubt give airtime to frustrations with another Democrat in the White House. But that might not be enough rage for Trump supporters.
In the short term, Napoli suggested, Trump could see some success thanks to the initial “curiosity factor.” But whether he can keep audiences interested is another matter. “For partisan content, there’s going to be an audience,” said Glenn Hower, a research analyst at the market-research company Parks Associates. “It’s just a matter of if that audience is going to be able to sustain a service in its entirety.” Matthew Levendusky, a University of Pennsylvania political scientist who studies partisan media, has his doubts. People who watch Fox News tend to like politics, Levendusky explained, but many Trump supporters have expressed they are tired of politics entirely. They voted for Trump to shake things up and disrupt the status quo. Levendusky said it’s not clear to him how a news-oriented network would support itself with viewers who are less politically interested. “Can you really sustain anger that way, and disgust with politics, over and over again?”