Crazier things have happened in media. So it would be foolish to completely dismiss the possibility that Donald Trump could successfully launch a TV network after the election — an idea that Financial Times reports today his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, recently raised with a prominent investment banker.
That item has people in the media business buzzing today, even though the FT acknowledges that the conversation with LionTree’s Aryeh Bourkoff “was brief and has not progressed.”
It’s easy to see why: The odds against Trump TV are steeper than the ones polls currently give the GOP nominee’s presidential aspirations, industry execs say. It also would be a stretch — although less daunting — to create a subscription online service.
The most promising option would be to create a single program in which he’d star.
The hurdle for a TV channel is that, using back-of-the-envelope calculations, it could cost anywhere from $250 million-$500 million to launch — and would require about $300 million in annual revenues to sustain.
It’s hard to see how a Trump-led venture could attract enough distribution and advertiser support to justify that investment.
For one thing, distributors led by Comcast and AT&T’s DirecTV want to drop channels, not add them. They’re losing subscribers, in part because the typical pay TV bundle has become too expensive and bloated. The average subscriber receives more than 200 channels, and the average household only watches about 18.
It’s especially hard for independent programmers — those not backed by a giant such as Disney, Time Warner, CBS, Comcast’s NBCUniversal, Viacom, Discovery, or Fox — to secure distribution.
Solo players are “are left to divide the few pennies that remain in [pay TV] programming budgets while being forced to agree to highly restrictive contract terms simply to reach the customers who demand their content,” Glenn Beck’s TheBlaze — a potential model for a Trump TV — told the FCC in a filing this past March.
Trump could try to shame operators into carrying his channel, for example by publicly tarring those who resist as members of a vast, establishment-led conspiracy.
But he still might be too radioactive. Just imagine how many subscribers would cut the cord at any cable or satellite service that agreed to give him a post-election platform — or boycott advertisers who buy time on it.
About 61% of the public views the GOP presidential candidate unfavorably, according to the polls that Real Clear Politics tracks. If you doubt the intensity of their feelings about Trump, then you haven’t been paying attention.
And if you doubt how risk-averse the major distributors are, consider how few carried Al Jazeera America — the news service that Qatar-based Al Jazeera created after it paid $500 million in 2013 for Al Gore’s Current TV. It closed in April saying that “our business model is simply not sustainable in light of the economic challenges in the U.S. media marketplace.”
Trump’s options would also be limited if he wanted to buy an existing channel and rebrand it for political and issues programming. Carriage contracts typically give operators an out to drop a channel if it changes its format.
On top of the basic business problems, think of the nightmare Trump TV would create in Washington for those who backed it. The idea pre-supposes that Hillary Clinton will be president.
Although Justice Department and FCC officials usually profess to be above politics, lobbyists for TV distributors carrying Trump TV would have to wonder about the reception they’d receive when they approach looking for approvals for a merger deal, or an offer to buy airwave spectrum, or any of the dozens of issues that will concern them over the next four years.
An online subscription service could help Trump avoid the TV gatekeepers.
Beck’s provided a model of sorts in 2011 when he began to charge $10 a month for his online service TheBlaze, which later picked up some TV distribution on Dish Network, Verizon FiOS, and Suddenlink.
But Beck had a relatively clear field for the audience when he started. Trump would have to compete with Beck — as well as the multitude of SVOD services that major media companies either have launched, or plan to introduce.
On top of that, Trump’s favorability numbers are especially low among the millennials who watch online video most.
“It’s hard to get money out of the consumer,” one exec says. “And for what? It can’t just be [Trump].”
Sarah Palin learned that lesson when she pulled the plug on her $10-a-month Sarah Palin Channel in mid-2015, about a year after it launched.
Trump might have more luck if he set the bar low, and simply offered a program to an existing network that would like the audience he’d attract. For example, Fox News might find that appealing — especially if it kept Trump away from a competitor.
Even with low-single-digit ratings he could make anywhere from $20 million-$25 million, and wouldn’t have to run anything.
That might appeal to a candidate who likes to brag about his savvy in the art of the deal.