Donald Trump’s Return to TV Would Not Be Easy

Whether he starts an outlet or settles for being a pundit, Trump, should he lose the presidency, would face a slew of obstacles to becoming a news juggernaut.

According to Business Insider, Donald Trump is preparing to go back into media if he loses the presidency. It’s easy to see why. Psychologically, Trump has demonstrated an intense need for attention, even exposing Secret Service agents to COVID-19 so he could wave to fans from a car outside Walter Reed. Financially, the president is in a tricky situation, with more than $400 million in debt. It will be challenging for Trump to pay off his loans as a developer, given his poor real estate track record and his polarizing brand. But the president does command tens of millions of devoted followers, more than enough for an impressive audience. Media, then, might be the best way for Trump to get the adulation and cash he needs.

For liberals, “Trump TV” seems like a nightmare. But from the standpoint of investors or executives, “Trump TV” might seem an easy bet. The president has been unsuccessful at many things, but he’s good at commanding attention. For four years, Trump has dominated print and cable news. His tweets have sparked crises. His behavior has spawned an industry of tell-all memoirs.

“I’ve got to believe there would be enormous capital that would finance him,” said Edward Bleier, a former Warner Brothers president who has worked in television since the 1950s.

But while many in media think Trump will make bank, some executives are skeptical that his ventures will ultimately succeed. His management experience does not portend well for a Trump-owned network. And it’s unclear if a Trump program on an existing channel would be an enduring hit. “He would burn out fast as a host,” said a long-time senior media industry executive. He argued that the president’s success at riling up conservatives while campaigning would not easily translate into being a TV commentator. Strip away the high drama of holding the country’s highest office, producers argue, and there may not be much Trump can do—including as a provocateur—that can’t now be done better by someone else. “I don’t think he has the horsepower intellectually,” the executive said.

Entertainment professionals echoed this argument. “There’s nobody more famous than Donald Trump, so I’ll give him that,” said Mike Tollin, a movie and TV producer who worked with Trump while broadcasting United States Football League games. Whatever program the president does will almost certainly begin with substantial viewership and wildly loyal fans. But even former presidents have shelf lives. And once Trump’s hits, Tollin argued, the president would be “a c-level TV talent” who producers find famously exasperating.

“I’m not very bullish on his ability,” Tollin said.

If Donald Trump loses on November 3, he will have many ways to make money in media. There are various conservative networks beyond Fox News that might welcome him as a host or commentator. Robert Herring’s One America News Network has risen out of obscurity by loudly and loyally backing the president. The owner of Newsmax Media, Chris Ruddy, is friends with Trump. If Vladimir Putin wants to keep destabilizing the U.S., he might have Russia Today (RT) offer the president an enormous deal to come aboard (if Trump is in legal trouble, going to Russia would have another set of benefits). Perhaps most promising for Trump’s bank account, there are signs that Sinclair Broadcasting Group, the second-largest TV operator in America, wants to build a right-wing media network that rivals Fox in size. Bleier wondered if Murdoch might offer Trump hundreds of millions—if not billions—of dollars in equity to avoid having him join the competition.

Wherever Trump signed, his salary would be massive. The longtime senior executive said that if he were heading a conservative station, he might offer the president $50 million each year. If Trump is hosting his own show, he would also receive a piece of its ownership, allowing him to make even more. Much of the $427 million the president made hosting “The Apprentice,” for example, came from his ownership stake. Other chunks of it came from endorsements—seven-figures to slap his name on buildings or peddle Pepsi, a $500,000 deal to hawk Oreos. Some may not want to be associated with a Trump show, given that his name is anathema to half of America. But many businesses, here and abroad, will pay to have a former president advertise their products.

“At worst for him, he becomes Rush Limbaugh,” Bleier said. Limbaugh makes more than $80 million each year.

Signing with an existing network or streaming service is probably Trump’s safest path. Plenty of politicians have made fortunes by joining shows, and none of them have Trump’s profile. But if the casino owner wants to roll the dice, he could establish his own news outlet. There are signs this is Trump’s preference. While complaining about CNN in 2018, the president mused that the government should start its own news outlet. The Trump family has already established a minor online media operation, uploading their own shows to YouTube under the banner of “Team Trump Online.” (The headline program, “Triggered,” is a webcast hosted by Donald Trump Jr.) Family allies have even attempted to purchase a stake in One America News Network.

If the president builds his own media outlet, the upsides are enormous. Ask Ted Turner or Rupert Murdoch. And there’s a decent chance Trump can open a news company of some kind. The president has followers so loyal they will pack into indoor arenas during a pandemic. If fans will risk death for Trump, they will subscribe to his channel. “He could raise hundreds of millions of dollars for this enterprise right off the bat, just as he has for campaign funds,” Bleier estimated.

If he didn’t want to start from scratch, the president could also choose to buy into an existing entity. In addition to One America News, it’s not difficult to imagine Sinclair Broadcasting partnering with the president. “It would be a way for Sinclair to achieve its ambitions of becoming a right-wing media empire,” Bleier said. It’s possible that Sinclair would even gift the president sizable equity as an enticement.

But there are reasons to be bearish about a Trump venture’s long-term prospects. What earned Trump such adoration—his ability to shock, offend, and “own the libs”—will fade when he is no longer the most powerful person on the planet. If the president is defeated handily, he will instead be the thing he hates most, and that he’s centered his public identity against: a loser. Trump’s incoherent rants and his cries of fraud, currently cause for concern and bewilderment, may eventually become cause for changing the channel.

“He will become very repetitive very fast,” the senior executive told me. He estimated that the president could host one show a week, which restricts his earning potential and possible influence.

The president’s show would also face stiff competition. Other conservative hosts, like Fox’s Hannity and Tucker Carlson, share Trump’s penchant for being offensive and outrageous. But they are disciplined, talented broadcasters. It is not a coincidence that Trump takes his messaging cues from watching Fox. And if Trump winds up competing with Fox, they won’t provide him with talking points.

Of course, the then ex-president could submit to a management team that keeps him coherent. If “The Apprentice” proves anything, it’s that talented producers can turn an erratic Trump into a viable televised product. Several businesspeople told me that “Apprentice” mastermind Mark Burnett, in particular, could make Trump’s post-presidency into a media juggernaut.

But Trump is hard to wrangle. He rarely listens to advice and churns through staff. Any producer of “The Trump Factor” would likely quit or be fired. “He’s impossible, impetuous, and insufferable,” said Tollin, the producer who used to work with Trump. “Who is going to be his agent?”

A Trump-controlled network would have an even greater chance of failure. It took Turner and Murdoch years to turn CNN and Fox into behemoths. Both did so when the cable television market was larger and less consolidated than it is today. Conservative media is particularly tricky. The target demographic—middle-aged-to-elderly white men—is becoming a smaller proportion of the U.S. They already have Fox.

And Trump is not a talented businessman. His companies have declared bankruptcy six times. His properties bleed cash. And his experience as chief executive of the federal government isn’t exactly inspiring. The United States has had one of the worst responses to the COVID-19 pandemic thanks to Trump’s dithering and denial. He could delegate the network’s management to better hands, but, once again, it’s hard to see him not micromanaging.

“Do you really want to help me build a channel for Donald Trump that targets old white guys?” the senior executive said. “I don’t think so.”

That doesn’t mean networks or investors won’t work with Trump. In fact, they likely will. Perhaps Fox will give him an enormous contract to call in as a commentator, buying him off without the risks of having to host a Trump show. (Whether Trump, with his massive ego, would settle for anything less than a dedicated prime-time audience is unclear.) Maybe Sinclair will decide partnering with Trump is worth the risk. Someone, somewhere, will pay him for his brand. Indeed, even the most spectacular possible failure—creating a new channel, only to have it sputter—could still be a financial win. Al Gore’s Current TV never really caught on with viewers. Yet when he sold it to Al Jazeera, he made out with $100 million.

Big, lengthy contracts, however, don’t translate into big, lasting audiences. It’s certainly possible that Trump will command enormous audiences for years to come. But the media business is tough, and Trump’s poor managerial skills and rambling style could mean he wears out his welcome pretty quickly. There are already plenty of conservative commentators—from Fox News’s Carlson to social media stars like Dan Bongino—who are perfectly capable of carrying on the president’s authoritarian, nationalistic torch. “Trumpism” will continue to be a force in America’s political discourse. But Trump might not.

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Daniel Block

Daniel Block is the executive editor of the Washington Monthly.