Trump’s TV Mogul Dream: Playing Out Several Paths

Trump’s TV Mogul Dream: Playing Out Several Paths
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After his election loss, the president is said to be reviving a plan to form a competitor to Fox News that could be an expensive and high-risk proposition.

A hotly contested presidential election. A candidate refusing to concede until the courts sealed his fate. The loser left licking his chops, ultimately securing financing to turn his political base into an audience for a new cable TV channel. The candidate? Former vice president and 2000 Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore. The channel? Current TV. The end result? Cultural irrelevance but a nine-figure payday when the channel sold to Al Jazeera for $500 million in 2012 as the Qatar-based outlet bought itself distribution through Current’s 40 million U.S. households.

Current TV had the good fortune of breaking into cable when carriage fees flowed freely and advertiser demand for TV was nearly unlimited. Now, President Trump, furious at Fox News’ coverage of the election, is weighing a TV venture of his own in a vastly changed political and media environment.

But a so-called “Trump TV” is not a new idea. In the waning days of the 2016 election, when it appeared that Trump was going to lose to Hillary Clinton, advisers drafted nascent plans for a Trump TV service, even going so far as to talk with an investment banker about financing. Those plans were shelved after his victory but have since been dusted off, a source familiar with talks tells The Hollywood Reporter.

The combination of a loyal follower base and the fundraising machine he built as president could be potent. “A news channel would give him the ability to create his own programming and his own narrative. He’s living in his own universe,” says an unscripted entertainment executive who worked on The Apprentice. “All kinds of people would bankroll that. There was a lot of money behind that campaign.”

If Trump wants to play in the video space, there are two ways to do it: A cable news channel or a digital venture. Both options have challenges. The opportunities of a cable channel are obvious: CNN and Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News — each distributed to more than 80 million U.S. households — hold cultural sway and are worth billions. Even a failure of a channel like Current can be worth hundreds of millions. However, the cost of launching a channel is prohibitively high (Al Jazeera America began with a $100 million annual budget on top of the Current purchase price) and can take months, even years, to become financially successful — and with cord-cutting, pay-TV providers are seeking to shed channels, not add new ones.

There are two existing conservative channels with modest distribution that might be eager to turbocharge their growth by tying themselves to Trump: One America News Network, run by Charles Herring, and Newsmax, overseen by Chris Ruddy. “By putting his name out there, there will be tons of viewers, millions of viewers perhaps, asking their cable operators to carry this network, which would really help with distribution,” says media industry consultant Brad Adgate.

Such a deal could see Trump and investors buy one of those channels or exchange the Trump name for a stake in the ventures. In fact, on Nov. 15, The Wall Street Journal reported that a private equity firm with ties to the Republican National Committee approached Newsmax about an acquisition this year. (Newsmax didn’t comment on the report to THR.)

Alternatives in the legacy TV space are slim. “[Trump could] seek to buy an existing non-news network and convert it into a news platform, but he would need distributor approval to do it and would be at risk of losing any affiliate fee revenue attached to that legacy network,” writes MoffettNathanson analyst Michael Nathanson. “In essence, you would inherit all of the costs but none of the revenue.”

The cheaper, faster option would be a digital venture. In fact, the 2020 Trump campaign already produced a full schedule of video programming, with a slate of hosts and a variety of formats, for YouTube. After Nov. 3, Trump launched the Save America PAC, which has been raising funds by asking donors to help contribute to Trump’s legal fight. While the PAC could in theory be used to fund a video service, it may be of best service to Trump by funneling cash to his loyalists to maintain his control over the Republican party.

But digital ventures have to entice paid subscribers one by one and can have a harder time securing major advertisers. The campaign videos are funded by donations, not ads or subscribers, so flipping the monetization switch might not be easy. “Some of the things he might say are not something mainstream advertisers would want to be a part of,” Adgate says.

The speed offered by digital has other drawbacks. How long would Trump commit to a venture if it kept him out of the brighter traditional TV spotlight? Would he decide to return to regular appearances on Fox News? Adgate compares the possibility of a Trump TV venture to the 2011 launch of Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network, but that lacked an Oprah-fronted show, frustrating her fans. Trump, meanwhile, needs to be the star, a veteran TV news executive notes, because “he doesn’t want to give the impression that he is losing.”

Lesley Goldberg contributed to this report.

A version of this story appeared in the Nov. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.