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Why Trump TV will fail

Donald Trump can launch an online network, but that doesn’t mean he can keep one afloat.

Donald Trump Speaks At The Republican Hindu Coalition's 'Humanity United Against Terror' Event In New Jersey Kena Betancur/Getty Images
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

Obvious truth: When Donald Trump loses the presidential election, he will start his own Trump TV network.

Educated guess: Trump TV will fail.

We know that Trump and his enablers have been kicking around the idea of a Trump network since June, because that’s when Vanity Fair first reported it. Today, the Financial Times says media banker Aryeh Bourkoff had a “brief” conversation with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, about the notion. (Bourkoff has since made it clear he will not be in the Trump business).

We also know that Trump will try to launch a Trump TV network after the election because it’s a blindingly obvious thing for him to try. He has generated huge ratings and audiences for TV networks and digital publishers, but hasn’t been able to capitalize on it directly for himself.

In November, he’ll get his chance. But Trump will find that running his own celebrity-branded media company is as hard as getting elected.

Let’s start with logistics: Trump is a TV creature, but he’s not going to be able to launch an actual TV network. Not for some time, at least.

In order for Trump to get his hands on a TV network, he would have to find someone to sell him one, find the cash to buy it and then convince pay-TV distributors to carry it.

All of these things are doable, but hard. Even in 2016, cable TV channels with full distribution, or even close to it, are valuable commodities, and the programmers that own them want to get maximum value for them.

Al Jazeera overpaid dramatically when it spent $500 million to buy Al Gore’s Current TV in 2013, but Trump would still need to find a good chunk of that to buy a TV network today.

And owning a network doesn’t mean that network will get distributed: As soon as Al Jazeera owned Current TV, it found that big cable distributors like Time Warner Cable no longer wanted to carry it.

At the very least, changing the format of a TV network gives pay-TV distributors the chance to renegotiate their contracts, as A&E and Vice found out when they rebranded the H2 Network as Viceland: AT&T/DirecTV took months to sign on to the deal.

The men who run the country’s biggest TV distributors aren’t likely to hold up a Trump TV deal solely because they find Trump odious — they’re in the business of giving TV watchers what they want.

But even if they wanted to fast-track a deal, it could take months, and some of them may want to drag their feet for more than that.

In the meantime, Trump could easily launch a digital network, fueled by subscription sales.

Recode contributor Max Benator laid out the bull case for that strategy last week. Here’s the short version: The technology to get a video subscription service up and running is now easy to master, and Trump has a large base of potential subscribers to convert. If he gets a sliver of them, it’s a real business, as Glenn Beck once proved with his Blaze network.

The problem with the Glenn Beck model is that it’s a model. So far, no one has been able to come close to reproducing the success Beck had at his height, when he claimed that 300,000 people were paying him $10 a month to watch him.

Sarah Palin tried and failed. Howard Stern could have tried it but chose to stick with a guaranteed paycheck from Sirius XM.

Turns out there’s a very small pool of people who can, or want to, work daily to create a product even dedicated fans will pay for. Just being a talented entertainer isn’t enough — you have to be one who can generate at least a couple of hours of new stuff every day in order to keep people coming back for more.

It requires both creativity and willingness to grind things out, day after day — and that’s very different from dropping in for a few hours to film a reality show or popping up onstage where a crowd of fans can temporarily fuel you.

Trump BFF Sean Hannity, who had an extensive background in radio before he broke big on Fox, has a much better shot of making this work (Beck had the same resume). But Trump can’t hope to start a network with his name and then substitute other celebrities for himself: He’s going to have to do the work, and he’s going to have to show up.

Oprah Winfrey learned the same lessons when she started her own TV network a few years ago but didn’t want to spend much time on camera herself. Eventually, she relented.

And even Glenn Beck’s plan no longer works for Glenn Beck — his audience, revenue and workforce have all shrunk dramatically in the last six years. And that’s without losing a national election and the energy the Trump campaign created.

Trump spent more than a year defying every other rational prediction, so it’s possible he’ll over-perform here and suddenly become a diligent entrepreneur and businessman who’s willing to do the hard work it takes to get a new business off the ground and sustainable.

But running a network isn’t the same as showing up on a network, and Trump is going to learn the difference.

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