Trump Media Ambitions May Look More Like The Blaze Than Fox News

A Trump TV Network Would Likely Be Met With Resistance From Advertisers

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Donald Trump on the season 14 finale of 'Celebrity Apprentice.'
Donald Trump on the season 14 finale of 'Celebrity Apprentice.' Credit: NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
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With former Breitbart News Chairman Stephen Bannon recently hired as a campaign chief and Fox News founder Roger Ailes advising, the last stretch of Donald Trump's presidential campaign is looking packed with media moguls.

The campaign itself overpowered many Republican primary rivals with Mr. Trump's ability, honed after 11 years as a primetime network star, to dominate the news and social media. With polls showing a narrow path to victory, could Mr. Trump's post-election plan return him to the media industry as a mogul?

People close to the candidate have taken a preliminary look at Mr. Trump's options to create a media business, according to people familiar with the matter, though there's no serious effort right now.

Creating a media outlet that could live up to the megawattage Mr. Trump has produced this past year on the campaign trial would be a lot harder than it sounds. While Mr. Trump has been a major draw for cable news, the most likely post-election scenario is that he would follow the path of former Fox News star Glenn Beck and start an online media venture first, relying on his large base of grassroots supporters to pay monthly subscriptions, media analysts and executives say.

"There's clearly a business in going direct to consumer," said BTIG Research analyst Rich Greenfield. "You're never going to have tens of millions of viewers like you get on TV because you're so narrow in focus. But if you're looking to have a very profitable niche media business, there's clearly an opportunity."

Mr. Trump's campaign didn't respond to requests for comment.

The TV Route

Mr. Trump's other major option is to start a TV network, which might offer more prestige than a website and, if it could get on enough cable systems, would be more accessible to older viewers. But it'd be an expensive move for a man who has famously run a low-budget presidential campaign.

To do it, he could go two ways. One is to take over the airspace of a defunct channel like Al Jazeera America or Pivot, which have both shut down this year. That may cost up to $500 million, if Al Jazeera's 2013 purchase price of Current TV is any indicator. (Current TV, of course, was co-founded by another former presidential candidate, Al Gore.)

Mr. Trump's other option would be to partner with a media conglomerate. For instance, Vice Media launched Viceland this year by teaming up with A&E Networks and replacing the H2 channel. Oprah Winfrey announced plans for her channel, the Oprah Winfrey Network, in 2008 through a joint venture with Discovery Communications Inc., which owns cable networks like TLC and Animal Planet.

But in a crowded TV landscape, it's hard for new channels to gain traction. So far, Viceland has just 45,000 prime-time viewers among 18-to-49-year-olds, according to the Wall Street Journal. Ms. Winfrey's network took more than four years to turn a quarterly profit and may have lost as much as $330 million during that time.

Starting a TV network "is a very big undertaking," said Christopher Ruddy, the founder of conservative media company Newsmax Media, which started a 24-hour cable news channel two years ago. "You need really big financial resources to go in."

No Guarantee

There's also no guarantee pay-TV providers like Comcast Corp. would carry Mr. Trump's channel. In fact, while cable operators typically pay programmers to carry their networks, Mr. Trump could have to pay the operators to get on their systems. When Rupert Murdoch started Fox News in the 1990s, he reportedly paid about $300 million to get cable operators to carry the network.

And if pay-TV operators agree to carry Mr. Trump's channel, he'd still need to invest in programming.

"The problem is people want to tune in to Donald Trump," Mr. Ruddy said. "But can Donald be on all the time? You still need to fill it up with programming that would make his audience happy. And that's where the big costs come in."

Getting a TV channel off the ground costs as much as $250 million, including programming, studio space and talent, Ruddy said. Mr. Trump could hire conservative commentators like Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh to host prime-time shows and fill the remaining hours with paid programming or documentaries, said another media executive who asked not to be identified speculating about the subject.

If Mr. Trump can get his channel distributed in 60 million homes and charge $2 to $3 a month per subscriber, he could make his investment back in four to five years, the executive said. That would be a higher monthly fee than Fox News currently gets from cable operators, according to SNL Kagan.

Ad Resistance?

But Trump would run into another problem with advertisers. Several brands have balked at supporting Mr. Trump, declining to sponsor the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. They likely wouldn't buy commercials on Trump's TV network either.

That's why an online video channel makes more sense. It's been tried before, with mixed results. In 2014, Sarah Palin introduced a $10-a-month online TV channel, but shut it down a year later. On the other hand, Mr. Beck started The Blaze online two years ago and got as many as 400,000 subscribers to pay $99.95 a year or $9.95 a month, according to Mr. Greenfield.

Mr. Beck may have hit a ceiling on subscriptions, though, because some of his conservative followers were older and more comfortable watching a TV channel than an online video service, according to one executive who asked not to be identified discussing his former employer. The Blaze didn't respond to requests for comment.

If Mr. Trump pursues his own media company, at least one executive may be interested in teaming up. Last August, Ms. Palin interviewed Mr. Trump on the One America News Network, a conservative news channel that's been described as an attempt to become the next Fox News. The YouTube clip has been viewed nearly 4 million times.

"He has the magic to build a huge audience, which is key in media," said Charles Herring, president of Herring Networks Inc., which owns One America News Network. The channel is available in about 15 million U.S. households.

"If Mr. Trump has interest in launching a cable news channel after the election, assuming he comes up short, he could simply give us a call," Mr. Herring said.

~~ Bloomberg News

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