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Trump TV is definitely coming: Be afraid! But what the hell will it look like?

Donald Trump will almost certainly pivot to media after Nov. 9 — and a cast of right-wing washouts are waiting


Matthew Sheffield
October 20, 2016 9:00PM (UTC)

In saying that he wouldn’t necessarily accept the legitimacy of a possible loss to Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump made it quite clear at Wednesday night’s debate that he won’t be going anywhere after Election Day.

“I’ll keep you in suspense,” he told moderator Chris Wallace.

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Whatever else he might do following a presidential campaign loss, part of Trump’s response is likely to include some version of the long-promised (or long-threatened) Trump TV. There are many reasons why.

Trump is a master of the medium and he knows how to get an audience.

The man simply loves television, especially when he’s the star. Even if other people are in front of the camera, however, Trump still loves tuning in.

By his own admission, he relies on Sunday news talk shows for foreign policy advice. The GOP nominee frequently makes comments about how the various channels cover him and evinces a level of familiarity with their content that only an obsessive viewer could have. As the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza has observed, “cable TV is the one indispensable item of a Trump's candidacy. It sits at the center of his days — and all he does in them.”

Trump is also very good at being on TV. While his business contest show “The Apprentice” in later seasons has not scored anywhere near its initial ratings, it’s done well enough to have lasted 14 years on U.S. television and inspired more than 20 localized versions in other countries. It’s still going to continue without him next year as Arnold Schwarzenegger takes over hosting duties.

Cable news has cashed in immensely from interest in Trump; he knows this.

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Even before he officially announced his candidacy, the famously orange tycoon has been a lifeline to the dying cable news channels, helping them reverse years of declining viewership. The first presidential debate during the Republican primary season was watched by a record 24 million viewers, three times more than the audience for the most-watched GOP debate in 2012.

His first face-off with Clinton also set a record with over 84 million TV viewers, more than the 81 million who watched Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter debate in 1980, long before the web and hundreds of TV channels.

As would be expected, the Republican presidential nominee is intimately familiar with how much of a boon his erratic and frequently controversial campaign has been for TV news. According to Advertising Age, CNN charged 40 times its normal fee for spots that were to air during its broadcast of the second GOP candidate forum.

Trump reacted to the news by calling on CNN to donate all of its ad revenues from the event to charities for American veterans.

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“You should view the second debate broadcast as a public service and not accept the massive profits that this airing will generate,” he wrote in a letter to the network's president, Jeff Zucker.

As the primary battle wore on and Trump began tiring of attending them, he flat-out wondered why the networks should “continue to get rich on the debates?” as he put it at a January news conference after announcing that he was going to boycott the final candidate forum in Iowa. “Why do I have to make Fox rich?” he asked.

While Trump has never notched more than 47 percent in any reputable public opinion survey against his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, he has tens of millions of loyal supporters who would absolutely love to continue hearing from him even if he ends up losing this election. His constant attacks on journalists (including those at Fox News) has only strengthened his fans’ distrust of the media as whole.

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It’s a GOP tradition to make money off of supporters.

Ever since the 1940s and '50s, when conservatives decided to establish their own media sources instead of buying up or starting mainstream ones, the American right has built up a reasonably large number of media outlets. Some of these have become immensely profitable, including websites like InfoWars and WND, which feed their readers a noxious diet of conspiracy theories, penis pills and herbal cancer cures.

As documented by historian Nicole Hemmer in her new book “Messengers of the Right,” from the very beginning these alternative media enterprises were also integrated with electioneering activities, such as Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign and James L. Buckley’s successful 1970 run for a U.S. Senate seat in New York. (He ran as a member of the Conservative Party, one of the stranger footnotes of American political history.)

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In the age of broadband internet and cable news, however, niche conservative media outlets have become even more of a draw for Republican politicians. Roger Ailes’ Fox News Channel took in legions of unsuccessful GOP politicians like Mike Huckabee and Allen West, giving them wads of cash but also high visibility on the top-rated right-leaning media outlet.

This publicity has enabled people like Rick Santorum, who lost his Pennsylvania Senate seat by 17 points, to be taken seriously by at least some Republican voters. Ditto for former GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and a host of others. It also proved essential to the rise of Donald Trump, as even former House speaker Newt Gingrich has admitted.

The Ailes-GOP relationship was mutually beneficial, however. The politicos got paid big bucks but Fox News raked in even more as the hiring sprees effectively allowed the channel to corner the market on right-leaning TV viewers. That enabled Fox News to trounce competitors like CNN and MSNBC, who had to split up the centrist and left-leaning audience.

With Trump’s supporters emphatically in his corner against Fox News stars like Megyn Kelly and Brit Hume, the former reality TV star is perfectly positioned to take away the audience that Fox News captured from CNN and the broadcast networks 15 years ago. He wouldn’t be the first Republican washout to try his hand at media entrepreneurship, either.

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Herman Cain, 2012’s flat-tax flash in the pan, launched an abortive Cain TV streaming service just months after he dropped out. He’s now the host of a nationally syndicated radio program. Two years later Sarah Palin tried to cash in as well, launching a paid-subscription Sarah Palin Channel, which folded in 2015.

There are plenty of experienced and motivated people Trump can hire.

In addition to the fact that Trump's celebrity among Republicans is at an all-time high and as much of his fan base actively hates Fox News now, another thing that Trump has going for him is that many of his most famous Republican supporters have also soured on Rupert Murdoch’s profit center.

Foremost among this group is Roger Ailes himself who was famously ousted as president of Fox News at the behest of Murdoch’s two sons, James and Lachlan, after the former Nixon operative was accused of sexual harassment and even keeping an employee as a sex slave.

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Supposedly, Ailes has a noncompete clause in his golden parachute agreement with Fox News that prevents him from working for a competitor, but there are many ways for him to get around it. Good corporate lawyers love to eat such clauses for breakfast. Even if he didn’t try to openly challenge it, should Ailes merely discuss ideas with his current political client Trump, there’s almost no way that Fox News could even know.

Another great potential hire for Trump is current Fox News star Sean Hannity. For months now the veteran radio and TV host has been at war with NeverTrump conservatives over his constant shilling for the GOP nominee.

Hannity has also taken to openly feuding with Megyn Kelly, the woman whom Trump and his legions love to hate and whose ascent into prime time was made possible by Hannity’s banishment from it. Luckily for the Titian-hued tycoon, Hannity’s contract is reported to have a clause that enables him to leave the network in the event of Ailes’ departure. Even if he chooses to not do so, Hannity’s agreement expires at the end of 2016, according to reports.

There are a host of other experienced conservative pundits who support Trump and who are not currently locked into formal agreements with a TV network, including columnist Ann Coulter and former CNN fixture Pat Buchanan, both of whom strongly dislike the internationalist libertarianism of Rupert Murdoch. Gingrich could also be persuaded to come aboard for the right price.

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Additionally, there’s current Trump campaign CEO Steve Bannon, who has a lot of film production experience and is the former head of Breitbart News, a right-wing media powerhouse. There’s also Sarah Palin, who was actually fired by Fox in 2015. Ailes was the one who made that decision, but with enough money on the table perhaps those wounds could heal. Throw in former mayor Rudy Giuliani and Bill O’Reilly (who also purportedly has a Fox News exit clause) and you have a full-scale prime-time lineup recognizable by any Republican voter.

Trump will likely need the money.

Perhaps the ultimate reason why Trump is likely to try his hand at television is that he might actually need the money such a venture could generate. With at least 17 women having accused him of sexual harassment or assault, and high-profile attorney Gloria Allred circling him like a mako on the make, it’s a virtual certainty that even if he wins the presidency, Trump will face litigation for his alleged behavior. Trump has also got to be feeling the squeeze from his departure from “The Apprentice.”

Perhaps even more important for his bottom line is the fact that Trump’s campaign and all its attendant controversies might be damaging his personal brand, which the businessman himself values at more than $3 billion.

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The Trump name, so integral to his presentation of ostentatious success, could be taking a monetary hit now, as Politico reporter Lorraine Woellert noted last week:

Hitch an outsized ego to a presidential campaign, stir in charged rhetoric on race, sex, class and religion, and a founder can be downright calamitous for a business built on the family name. That’s where Trump has taken his brand, said Howard Pulchin, global creative director at APCO Worldwide.

“Before the campaign there was a balance between the brand Trump and Mr. Trump himself,” Pulchin said. Now, “the individual has usurped the business, and when the individual strikes this much controversy it can’t be good for the brand.”

In addition Woellert observed:

Online travel company Hipmunk showed that Trump properties were a shrinking share of hotel bookings on its website during the first half of 2016, down 58 percent from a year earlier when Trump wasn’t officially running for president.

And foot traffic to Trump-branded hotels, casinos and golf courses in the U.S. has dropped since Trump announced his candidacy, falling 17 percent from June 2015 through the end of September — and 21 percent among women. That’s according to Foursquare, a location intelligence company.

Plus, the stats mentioned above were compiled before Trump began facing the deluge of harassment and assault accusations. The GOP nominee’s general reluctance to rebuke the white nationalist alt-right movement, which has linked itself to his candidacy in the hopes of increasing its own relevance, can’t be helping matters either.

The recent focus on Trump’s massive business losses in the past could be taking a toll on his image as well: How can you admire a guy for being rich if he’s not nearly as loaded as he says?

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The renewed controversies around the Trump name appear to be weighing on the minds of his high-level associates. Last month, as Woellert noted, the Trump Organization made a stark departure from tradition and launched a new hotel line called Scion that did not bear the name of its primary owner.

“We wanted a name that would be a nod to the Trump family and to the tremendous success it has had with its businesses, including Trump Hotels, while allowing for a clear distinction between our luxury and lifestyle brands,” Trump Hotels CEO Eric Danziger said in a news release.

It’s going to be web TV, not cable TV.

Despite all the indications that Donald Trump might be getting into television, I am inclined to agree with the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza, who has argued that a Trump cable channel probably isn’t in the works.

Television as a whole is a dying medium. Millions of younger people are canceling or not even subscribing to cable or satellite companies.

Launching a TV news channel is also time-consuming and insanely expensive: Not only do you have to hire hundreds of employees; you also have to worry about distribution. The cost of arranging for a channel to be carried by the numerous companies offering paid TV is astronomical.

Most operators aren’t really interested in new channels that they don’t own themselves, and the market itself is being continuously fragmented. Things have gotten much worse since Rupert Murdoch literally had to pay cable companies to offer Fox News to their subscribers.

The famously cheap Trump isn’t likely to be interested in laying out huge sums of money for something like that. Given the fact that television isn’t a growth industry anymore and Trump’s problems attracting investors even before his campaign, he simply may not be able to raise the funds to launch a traditional television operation.

On the other hand, web video continues to be a growth sector. The costs to produce and distribute it are significantly lower than they’ve ever been, thanks to the proliferation of services like CloudFlare, Microsoft Azure and Amazon CloudFront.

Trump.TV is gonna be yuge!


Matthew Sheffield

A writer, web developer, and former tv producer, Matthew Sheffield covers politics, media, and technology for Salon. You can email him via m.sheffield@salon.com or follow him on Twitter.

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