Can Trump TV Succeed?

The presidential candidate is reportedly considering a return to the networks once his run is over. It just might work.

Richard Carson / Reuters

Donald Trump is dissatisfied with the state of American media. So Donald Trump is going to do something about it. Citing anonymous sources, Vanity Fair reported earlier this week that the presumptive Republican nominee is considering starting his own cable-television network. Trump “has become irked by his ability to create revenue for other media organizations without being able to take a cut himself,” the story reads. “Such a situation ‘brings him to the conclusion that he has the business acumen and the ratings for his own network.’”

Trump seems to have made the calculation that voters equal viewers. And he could be right: Of the more than 13 million people who backed him in the presidential primary, surely some would be attracted to a channel he creates. Just as Trump has found a base that’s dissatisfied by the major political parties, he might be able to attract an audience who feel underserved by the major networks.

Disgruntled viewers seem to be out there, especially among those who watch Fox News. Trump supporters were enraged last year at Megyn Kelly’s treatment of him during the first presidential debate, and Trump encouraged their ire. Soon, Republicans’ esteem for the news channel began to fall. While CNN’s primetime viewership grew last year, Fox News’s flatlined. This “could mean trouble when the excitement of the presidential campaign fades away,” Breitbart’s John Nolte wrote in a February op-ed. He argued the network has had a pro-establishment bias throughout the campaign and too often ignored Trump’s rise. Dissatisfaction with Fox, Nolte wrote, “could also give an upstart an opening.”

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?”

Launching a network is tough in and of itself, between high start-up costs, finding enough content to fill the hours, and finding enough advertisers to make money, Levendusky said. Trump would surely get business partners to help, and he has several talking heads he could potentially employ. But he doesn’t have the backing of a major media empire, like Fox News has with 21st Century Fox, and CNN with Turner Broadcasting, Hower said.

Still, Trump wouldn’t be the first politician to launch his own channel. Al Gore co-owned the progressive network Current TV for eight years before selling it to Al-Jazeera for hundreds of millions in 2013. Ahead of the sale, it reached 60 million households and had a regular cast of commenters, such as former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer. Sarah Palin—who has also taken paychecks from Fox News—once had her own channel, too. For $10 a month, viewers could get online videos featuring commentary “cut through the media’s politically correct filter.”

Perhaps Trump would promise something similar to his viewers. While some former candidates have been fine with marginal post-race fame, it seems in keeping with Trump’s persona that he would need an entire TV network to satisfy his appetite for fame. Napoli said politicians have been trying for decades to circumvent journalists: Howard Dean used the internet to send messages to voters, and Ross Perot used infomercials he paid for himself. Trump’s potential TV channel, Napoli said, seems to be “part of the ongoing process ... to try to marginalize actual journalists.”