In the midst of closing a merger between CBS and Viacom, Shari Redstone is quietly exploring a plan to launch a conservative TV outlet meant to square off with the Fox News Channel, sources tell The Hollywood Reporter.
This Redstone plan for a new TV service also would have a streaming component. THR has learned that Pluto, which Viacom acquired in March for $340 million, is about to launch an as-yet-unannounced streaming conservative news and opinion channel. A source says the idea for that network was in the works before the Pluto acquisition.
Redstone has approached current and former Fox News personalities about such a plan, sources say, and she has spoken with former NBC News host Megyn Kelly. A rep for Kelly declined to comment.
As the merger of Viacom and CBS awaits regulatory approval, a Redstone spokesperson confirms that she quietly visited President Donald Trump in the White House recently but denies any plan to launch a conservative TV network (as does a spokesperson for Viacom). Redstone plays her personal politics close to the vest but shortly after Trump’s election she told THR, "He's always been very good to me and a tremendous supporter of me personally."
A former CBS-Viacom exec says Redstone has sat in on "multiple meetings" about the potential venture, though this person doesn’t think Redstone’s idea arises from ideology. Viacom has faced headwinds in the transforming media environment as Redstone worked to wrest control from former chairman Philippe Dauman and then to push through a merger with CBS. Fox News mints money for owner Fox Corp. and the Murdoch family, estimated at north of $1 billion in profit annually.
According to insiders, Redstone could rebrand one of the existing Viacom channels and presumably would insulate CBS News from the new offering. "Everybody wants Fox News money, but nobody wants to destroy their [existing] news brand," a source says. As a journalism institution, CBS News boasts two of the most venerable titles in TV with 60 Minutes (regularly the most-watched news broadcast in all of TV, 12 million tuning in live to the most recent episode) and CBS Sunday Morning.
Despite CBS News' clout for the weekday broadcasts — see Gayle King's headline-generating March interview with disgraced musician R. Kelly — the ratings for mainstays CBS This Morning and CBS Evening News lag behind the competition. In both dayparts, ABC and NBC have been locked in a relatively tight battle for No. 1 status among viewers and the news demo of adults 25-54 for the last two decades. CBS trails far enough behind to be a relative afterthought.
Redstone sees an opening as the audience for TV news grows older and more conservative and Trump and some of his fans express disenchantment with ratings giant Fox News, which lost its top news anchor Friday when Shepard Smith announced his departure amid conflict with some of the network’s opinion hosts. One insider says Redstone thinks Fox News, whose top shows are hosted by Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, has "gone crazy" in the Trump era as it also grapples with the sexual harassment-tainted legacy of network founder Roger Ailes.
While Fox News dominates in ratings and distribution, the conservative landscape includes One America News Network (which received praise from Trump on Twitter on Thursday) along with Newsmax TV and Glenn Beck’s Blaze Media, both of which are on Dish Network. Other nonlinear TV competitors include Breitbart News, The Daily Caller (co-founded by Tucker Carlson) and Salem Media Group, a publicly traded company that is considered the industry leader in talk radio, and Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire.
If Redstone’s right-leaning channel does become a reality, it probably wouldn’t launch before Viacom and CBS — both of which are controlled by Redstone and her ailing father, Sumner — close their merger and become ViacomCBS, a $30 billion conglomerate that will run CBS, Showtime, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon, MTV, VH1 and BET.