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Fox News has never been as vulnerable as it is right now. Enter Trump TV?

Finding subscribers will be key — but Trump TV really could be the future of conservative media.

GOP Presidential Candidates Debate In Detroit
Can Donald Trump upend Fox News?
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

So much about Donald Trump’s rumored news network, usually called Trump TV, sounds like another Trumpian boondoggle in the making. (Trump claims to have “no interest” in a venture like this, but something called “Trump TV” is still doing nightly Facebook Live newscasts, which would seem to contradict the point.)

Launching a new network in the current media environment — where the cable world is contracting, not expanding — is a risky proposition. Couple that with a losing presidential campaign, one that has already tanked its candidate’s brand name, and all signs point to disaster, even if the enterprise has all the underpinnings of a “real” TV network.

Of course, Trump TV doesn’t even have that. It’s mostly been a series of Facebook Live videos, with pro-Trump newscasts making up the bulk of them. (TV critics haven’t been kind, but TV critics likely aren’t the target audience here.) And while Facebook Live seems like a good potential platform for ad revenue someday, it’s not there yet. That could be a problem, given that Facebook Live videos aren’t pay-per-view, and ad revenue is the only way Trump TV could make money.

A post-election Trump TV could more easily sell ads and air its videos across even more platforms and sell access to programming via chalking up subscriptions (the most likely way to raise revenue from niche online media). But none of this changes the central problem with an online news network: Making TV is expensive, and online ad sales still lag behind sales for even the lower-rated TV networks in terms of revenue. Is there any way subscriptions could make up that gap?

Now consider that Fox News is right there, wearing its crown as the conservative king of the modern media landscape. It’s routinely been the most watched network on cable this election year, and it has a loyal, mostly captive audience. Common logic suggests that an upstart with the same target audience wouldn’t stand a chance.

But that’s precisely why Trump TV could work: Fox News has rested on its laurels a bit, and it’s never been more vulnerable to a challenger appealing to its viewers’ cultural conservatism.

Fox News hasn’t always known how to handle the Trump phenomenon

As the general election has worn on, Fox News has settled into its typical place atop the ratings for cable news networks. And it’s frequently come close — most notably in debate weeks — to being the top cable network, period, especially if you ignore live sporting events like the baseball playoffs.

But what’s easy to miss in that summation is that CNN was semi-regularly beating Fox News as recently as the spring. Whereas, back in 2008, a long, bruising Democratic primary only boosted MSNBC’s fortunes back, a long, bruising Republican primary has sometimes threatened to rip the Fox News audience apart.

First, the network was seen as trying too hard to quash Trump’s primary run, and it paid for that in the ratings. But it paid even more when it got behind Trump and let popular hosts like Sean Hannity play the role of boosters. As the primary wound toward its end, Fox’s pro-Trump programming yielded ratings that frequently lagged behind CNN’s.

The general election — which has seen most Republicans fall in line behind Trump, as you’d expect — has quelled that downturn, but Fox’s ratings are still, on average, lower than its ratings in 2012. That’s partly due to the fact that fewer people are watching live television in 2016 than in 2012. But it also must reflect the network’s split reaction to Trump.

In its own way, Fox News’s struggles with Trump and his fans reflect the larger struggles of the Republican party. Is Trump the face of the future of conservatism? Or does he represent a dead-end version of the political philosophy, one that will alienate people of color and women and result in the Republican party being reduced to an angry rump?

The GOP as a whole will have to answer that question going forward if Trump loses. But it’s also going to weigh heavily on Fox News itself.

Even during the general election, there’s been a split between Fox News personalities who serve as Trump cheerleaders, like Hannity and Bill O’Reilly, and those who have pushed back against the candidate, like Megyn Kelly and even debate moderator Chris Wallace — to the anger of his fans.

In short, right at a moment when Fox News is growing in mainstream acceptance — Wallace moderating the third and final debate was a huge deal for the network — it’s also seeing a growing segment of its audience turn away because it trusts nothing less than a mainstream media it sees Fox News flirting with becoming.

And that’s where Trump TV comes in.

The Fox News audience is old and getting older. Trump TV could grab younger conservatives.

One of the most frequently repeated statistics you’ll hear about Fox News is that its median viewer in primetime is 68 years old — meaning that half its viewers are older than 68. That’s astronomically old in the eyes of broadcast TV, and even in the older-skewing cable news world. (CNN’s median age is 59.)

To a degree, all cable news networks are racing against a demographic nightmare. Watching the news on TV is an aging habit, as more and more young people stick to consuming their news online.

But if the goal is to race ahead of that demographic nightmare, well, Fox News is already lagging behind CNN or MSNBC, which boast comparatively younger audiences. And though Trump’s rise has been fueled, in part, by the more youthful “alt-right,” it’s not at all clear that the alt-right views Fox News as a major source of information — at least not when compared to websites like Breitbart, or even further under the radar publications.

And Trump TV, if it happens, will likely have Breitbart’s Steve Bannon (a major force within the Trump campaign) as one of its key strategists. There was also a time when it seemed as if Trump TV might attract former Fox News guru Roger Ailes — ousted from the network he founded after a lengthy string of sexual harassment allegations brought against him by women within Fox News — to provide counsel from his years in the media trenches, but it’s rumored that he and Trump have split ways.

By far the biggest misunderstanding of Trump TV is that it would have to become a major behemoth right away to compete with Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC. This is driven by a smart impulse on some level — it’s way too hard to launch a cable network now — but it misunderstands what Trump is trying to do: peel off just enough of the faithful to establish a beachhead, then grow from there. Fox News itself took a similar approach when it launched in 1996, perceiving a vacuum in the news landscape that a forthrightly conservative voice could fill.

Now, thanks to the onset of narrowcasting — as discussed in this recent Vox piece by Jason Mittell — you don’t even need that big of an audience to be a success.

As detailed in this Reuters piece, it probably wouldn’t be that expensive to set up a Trump TV that could be sustained with a surprisingly small subscriber base (perhaps 500,000 or so), paying around $10 a month. And if you nab a few of Fox News’s most successful hosts — O’Reilly’s contract, for instance, is up for renewal next year — well, you might even poach some of Fox News’s viewers.

When push comes to shove, I’d probably still bet on Fox News in this potential battle. But it’s clear that the network is trying to shed some of its reputation as a news source for older white men — particularly as it continues to boost the profile of Kelly. And at a time when Trump’s campaign is driven so heavily by playing directly to the identity politics of white men, well, there’s probably a market niche in which Trump TV can thrive.

Making that demographic appeal to white male identity politics so far looks like it won’t win Trump the White House. But that appeal is one that can work in an ever more divided media landscape. Trump TV probably can’t vanquish Fox News — but it could become Fox News’s younger, “more conservative” alternative, as unlikely as that sounds.