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When the wild and nasty campaign of 2016 finally comes to a close Nov. 8, an unshackled Donald Trump (assuming he loses) will be unencumbered to pursue his next act. Notwithstanding the candidate’s recent denial of “any interest” in launching a TV network, observers expect Trump to capitalize on his fervent following either with a splinter political movement or a media destination. Or both.
What might that look like? New clues dropped by the campaign and the financial realities of the news business offer a potential road map. The candidate took to Facebook Live with a lineup tagged “Trump TV” on Oct. 19 and on Oct. 24 debuted Trump Tower Live, which streams on Facebook nightly at 6:30. Both have been interpreted as trial balloons for a post-election media venture.
It’s a narrative Trump Tower Live hosts — Boris Epshteyn, a campaign adviser, and Cliff Sims, of Alabama-based news site Yellowhammer — have taken pains to discount. But the Trump campaign already has a sophisticated digital operation based in San Antonio. It is the brainchild of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who is said to have solicited advice from Silicon Valley contacts about scaling and direct marketing once Trump locked down the nomination. The campaign expects to have amassed information on 12 million to 14 million small-dollar donors, including email addresses and credit card numbers, according to Bloomberg. That database could well power Trump’s next act.
Unlike a cable network — which would require millions of dollars in startup costs to secure distribution and advertisers and create a lot of content — a subscription-based OTT channel has a low cost of entry. “A digital network can be up and running immediately, which we saw on debate night,” says former CNN president Jon Klein. “It can generate significant amounts of revenue on day one and be profitable by lunchtime.” Klein runs Tapp TV, which creates digital channels with clients including Joan Lunden, self-help author Steve Arterburn and, at one time, Sarah Palin.
“A good, solid tribe is essential,” notes Glenn Beck, who launched The Blaze in 2010, when he still was hosting a daily Fox News Channel show, and Glenn Beck TV in 2011, after leaving the network. “You have to have a loyal fan base that is looking for what you are uniquely putting out. But more importantly, you need to be able to branch out horizontally.” That means a personality must appear regularly on the network and persuade viewers to watch content that doesn’t feature the star attraction.
Beck was a pioneer in the digital channel ecosystem. In its first year, analysts estimated, GBTV took in close to $30 million in subscriber revenue. But while one source says The Blaze peaked with around 300,000 customers paying $8 a month, Beck wasn’t able to sustain interest, and the site has downsized since its height of popularity, shuttering its New York newsroom this summer and laying off staff.
Does Trump, 70, have the drive to build a digital network, and will his followers watch people other than Trump? Certainly his campaign CEO Steve Bannon’s background at Breitbart could be useful. But according to the campaign, the first edition of Trump Tower Live on Oct. 24 peaked at only 60,000 live viewers. (Trump did not appear on the show.)
Indeed, if Trump Tower Live is a prototype, many agree it’s not a very compelling one. “Brutal” is how one industry source describes it. And it’s unclear what other pundits — from Breitbart or elsewhere — Trump might be willing to share airtime with. Mark Levin’s conservative-leaning CRTV recently hired Michelle Malkin and Mark Steyn, for instance.
But Klein notes success in the social media-enabled landscape is less about fueling an insatiable maw with hours of content and more about fostering a community. “Breitbart and Fox News are one-way conversations,” he says. “They talk at you. They’ve created communities inadvertently. Donald Trump is very adept at making provocative statements that generate conversations.”
It’s something that already is happening in conservative online media, where the rise of the alt-right is splintering Republicans. “We are in the beginning of a Dadaist movement. And Trump TV can be the urinal of that movement,” says Beck, referring to the Marcel Duchamp sculpture that launched an artistic revolution. “And I mean that as an art historian.”
This story first appeared in the Nov. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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