Trump TV network: Media power play for ‘Alt-right’ won't be money maker

11/02/2016 02:50 pm ET
Screen grab from October 27 campaign event featuring live "interview" with Boris Epshteyn.
Screen grab from October 27 campaign event featuring live "interview" with Boris Epshteyn.

New incarnation of Trump brand could have big audience, but little ad revenue

Polls are bad, unless you’re winning. The media is horrible, unless they like you.

Donald Trump is neither the first nor the last presidential contender to express these political truisms. He loves when the numbers reveal an American public favorable to his positions, and extols the virtues of press organs when they show him affection.

Of course, “scientific” polling and news coverage follow the unpredictable ebb and flow of candidate popularity (or lack thereof), but the real power is vested in controlling the message and dominating voter psychology.

To that end, if the only percentages that matter, those on November 8, do not work out for Trump, the pundits are saying (and I’m hearing) that plan B is to launch a sophisticated media behemoth that pivots forward from the election season into a long-term sensationalism machine.

Envisioning an empire

The election formula is to get half of America (and most of the mainstream media) hooked on an indignant rejection of Trump and to whet the other half’s appetite for a continuous stream of exponentially more absurd commentary on the “establishment” -- which is really just code for liberal, urban, multicultural America.

Trump has certainly played the media, in the sense that he’s generated billions in free attention -- thus benefitting both himself and almost every other network that people watch simply because he’s on, for combined entertainment-news value.

Yet some critics would argue that The Donald has effectively conned opponents and supporters alike, since his real goal is to become a media magnate himself, not actually to occupy the Oval Office.

That being said, to launch such an empire, Trump would not just require a large amount of startup capital. He also needs to keep viewers interested and create a sustainable revenue model.

To become a conventionally successful media player, one must attract and retain advertisers -- most of whom are repelled for the exact same reasons why many big business donors have kept their pocketbooks hermetically sealed from his campaign.

Despite fears of the toxic Trump brand, and unknowns about who would actually fork over the cash needed to get Trump TV off the ground, he certainly has close ties to many Wall Street honchos and hedge fund investors, who comprise his entire 13-man economic advisory council.

To be clear, the biggest irony of Trump’s sudden emergence in the political arena is that his ideological crusade has largely been bad for his core business. Yet, to put that reality in perspective, so many of his businesses failed anyway.

Perhaps wealth does place a distant fourth in Trump’s hierarchy, after power, fame, and status. A transition to a media empire may not primarily be a money play, but a drive to consolidate influence and perceptions of his increased relevance.

Political niche market

As with any club, when they don’t let you in, it’s time to start your own. When the majority of journalists and politicians didn’t approve of him in their politics and media, he started a parallel universe populated by his base. Without a doubt, Trump has more or less just added his name brand recognition to something that already existed on the populist, xenophobic, dog-whistling right.

However, absent constantly fresh controversy, Trump TV risks descending into one “long and monotonous infomercial.” While Facebook Live broadcasts might be one of the introductory components of the new project, they don’t a network make. Despite low production values (as evidenced by the test run during the second debate), well over 100,000 people tuned in during the peak excitement of the campaign.

The eventual goal would be to succeed the triumvirate of Fox News on TV, Limbaugh on the radio, and Drudge online. Among conservative media, the new battlefield hosts a dogged contest to define the soul of the Republican party. Trump could continue to thrive at the fringe of the GOP, or a distinct new infrastructure might emerge, cannibalizing the Party of Lincoln.

Subscriptions alone will not pay for the platform, but perhaps Breitbart’s Steve Bannon, Trump’s top adviser, understands how to monetize a sizable audience migrating from embattled Fox and The Blaze.

Trump represents a huge cross-section of America, a demographic that will continue to be 45 percent of the country, come November 9. And conservative media generally enforce an orthodoxy more to the right than the mainstream GOP.

The grand illusion presented to Trump supporters is that his election will bring immediate, tangible change to their lives. While some businessmen, celebrities, and actors have transformed into capable and sincere public officials, it’s hard to imagine Trump committing to four years of policy deliberations and civic leadership.

On the one hand, Trump mischaracterizes, conflates, and inflames. He excoriates, chastises, and commiserates. But he also touches upon real issues that are important to debate.

It may be hard to pick apart the genuine things worth evaluating that are part of his prescription for ”draining the swamp” and making America great again. Despite an exceptionally loose command of the facts and an incredible lack of tact, he embraces many ideas that aren’t beyond the pale.

Behind the racist references, there are real concerns about immigrants taking jobs. Underneath the blatant sexism and anti-Semitic tropes is an appeal to Americans whose identity feels besieged, culturally and economically. The network would flourish at moments when Trumpist populism is energized: around Islamophobic controversies, urban unrest, diplomatic botches, and negative results of trade deals.

Notwithstanding questions about the format, could Trump TV keep up enthusiasm for a news source that represents working-class fans who feel they are otherwise endangered and lacking a voice? Would it be a happy home for white nationalists railing against political correctness? Might the project further assimilate “race realists” at Alternative Right, American Renaissance, and The Right Stuff into the American media landscape?

Content is king

Donald Trump himself can’t sustain doing the same pep rallies forever. Crowds might get bored once there’s not an election happening. Yet a possible mix of content (which most likely will be touted as “platform-agnostic”) includes Trump event appearances, reality TV, Apprentice reruns, political talk, beauty pageants, and long-form documentaries. The entire spectacle will be ready-made for consumers who largely can’t necessarily afford the fanciest of the Trump brands.

Linear television has much higher barriers to entry than digital broadcasting, but offers more prestige. One could imagine Trump TV jockeying for a spot on the highly competitive dial. But will cable providers buy into the concept, thereby risking anti-Trump protests outside their headquarters? An aging audience that skews male and white is ripe for Trump’s permanent taking, but there are far fewer obstacles to penetration on the web than on television.

Trump is well-placed for an automatic parlay into the next phase, but the level of attention might be hard to match. However, one could imagine how the outlet would bask in the glory of election fraud allegations, Democratic character assassination, an endless refrain of “Lock her up!” and Clinton impeachment discussions.

As a vehicle for outrage, the network could feature disaffected citizens ranting about the loss of electoral power. If it sequesters such perspectives, then the propaganda factor could be high. Depending on whether it starts off with a more mild politics, the effort could be viewed as a Trojan Horse by elites skeptical of more intense rebellion or retrenchment once the new audience is grown and secured.

As an act of political arson and social vandalism, Trump’s emergence has begun to smash up the existing political order -- a manifest expression of anger without a clear end in sight. Populist rage has origins in very reasonable critiques of our society, with legitimate sources of discontentment. But it needs to be channeled productively and progressively rather than destructively.

While Trump TV -- and his entire election enterprise, for that matter -- may not be good for his business bottom line, the foray into politics is more about cultivating an image. Though not commercially sound, it promotes Trump’s face at the front of a movement.

Assuming that Trump loses, the TV gig will be a nice backup. But if he is victorious, like Berlusconi, he could rule the country and a media empire at the same time.

Good luck, America. Buona fortuna, as Silvio might add. In bocca al lupo -- into the wolf’s mouth we go.

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