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Tucker Carlson’s TV-to-Twitter move could actually pay off

Here’s the math.

Tucker Carlson, 2019.
Chip Somodevilla/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.

Okay. We still don’t know why Tucker Carlson is out at Fox* but we know where he’s going. He’s setting up shop at Twitter, cheered on by Elon Musk.

Next question: Can he make money there?

To be clear, money isn’t the only reason Carlson wants to be on Twitter. And if he was most interested in money, he probably wouldn’t go anywhere at all in the near future since doing so looks likely to kick off a legal fight with Fox about the remainder of his very lucrative contract. Carlson wants to be on Twitter because he wants attention — both in general and in the runup to the 2024 elections.

But Carlson also likes money, and Fox reportedly paid him $20 million a year. Can he make anything like that on Twitter? I think he can.

My gut says that Musk has already promised Carlson that he’ll pay him as much or more than his Fox paycheck to come to Twitter. After all, if you’ve already incinerated tens of billions of dollars to buy Twitter, why not shovel a few million more onto the fire? Bringing the most popular and powerful host on cable TV news to his platform guarantees we’ll continue to pay attention to Musk. And to Musk, attention is priceless.

Musk, for what it’s worth, says “we have not signed a deal of any kind whatsoever” with Carlson, and if Musk were a normal person, I’d encourage you to parse that statement for potential loopholes — maybe there’s a verbal deal but not a signed one? But since it’s Musk, who just makes things up, I wouldn’t bother spending energy on that. Maybe he’s telling the truth, maybe he’s not.

For now, Musk wants to use Carlson as a high-profile test case for his pitch that Twitter can become a full-fledged media platform, one where Free Thinkers can set up shop and make money without having to worry about the Woke Mind Virus. (He’s already trying to make the case to Don Lemon, who was fired from CNN the same day Fox fired Carlson.)

So let’s speculate about what Carlson could actually do on Twitter if he wanted to try replicating his Fox show on the site.

Some starting assumptions: Since Carlson wants both money and the spotlight, he’ll want a hybrid approach. Which means Carlson superfans can pay up to watch everything he does, via a subscription offering, and Carlson will also promote free ad-supported clips on the site.

Let’s also assume that even though marketers have fled both Carlson’s show on Fox and Twitter under Musk’s ownership, there will be some advertisers who are willing to attach themselves to a Carlson Twitter show.

At Fox, Carlson averaged around 3 million pay TV viewers per episode. And Fox also says it has more than 1 million subscribers for Fox Nation, its (formerly) Tucker-heavy streaming service.

It’s not a given that someone who’s very popular on one platform will replicate that audience on a new platform (ask Carlson’s former coworker Megyn Kelly about that). And asking Carlson’s older fans to switch from linear TV to a smallish social network increases the difficulty. And even in a best-case scenario, only a fraction of Carlson’s fans will pay to see him.

But for argument’s sake, let’s say that Carlson is able to replicate his paying Fox audience with free Twitter viewers (with a big push from Musk, who will most certainly put this thumb on Twitter’s algorithmic scale to make sure he gets maximum exposure).

In that case, here’s some very back-of-the-envelope math, made with input from people who used to work at Twitter.

Carlson’s “I’m back” video, which he published Tuesday, has racked up more than 22 million views, but that’s because he’s a news story. Once the novelty wears off, if he could get 3 million views on each of his free videos** and put out four clips a day, five days a week, 52 weeks a year backed by ads bought at a rate of $4 for every 1,000 views — you could imagine an ad business that generates some $12.5 million a year.

And if Twitter took the standard 20 percent ad commission it used for its “Amplify” video program, Carlson would net about $10 million a year, before production costs. (If you don’t like those numbers, feel free to swap in your own. If Carlson could average 6 million views, for instance, that gross number would double to $25 million. Also bear in mind that some Twitter ad units are skippable after a few seconds, and those tend to have a 50 percent skip rate, which would dramatically decrease his take.)

What about subscriptions? Here we have to get even more speculative. If Fox could get more than a million $6-a-month subscribers for a Fox + Tucker streaming service, how many could Carlson get on his own? Let’s say it’s 250,000. That pencils out to $18 million a year, minus the 15 percent to 30 percent that Apple and Google charge for in-app purchases made on their mobile operating systems. So, $12.6 million to $15.3 million, before production costs.

Would Twitter take a cut of that? Who knows? Musk has previously tweeted that creators on his platform would keep all of their revenue for the first year they sold subscriptions and that Twitter would take a 10 percent cut after that. Twitter’s subscription FAQ, meanwhile, offers a completely different set of numbers and terms, and Twitter’s fine print currently says that the terms are totally up to Twitter and could change whenever.

Also, Twitter is owned and operated by Elon Musk, who makes it up as he goes and doesn’t pay his bills. So it could get ... complicated.

But yes, squint at it. Imagine that Tucker Carlson fans will follow him from TV to Twitter and that some of them — along with some advertisers — will pay him, and you could imagine that Carlson could make more on Twitter than he did at Fox. (And, again, you should also imagine that Carlson has some kind of Musk guarantee that this will happen regardless of performance.)

Now take that money and factor in the spotlight that Musk will absolutely shine on Carlson’s every utterance (at least until he gets bored with it). We’ve seen very few instances of primetime old-media stars replicating their success online, but this could be one of them.

* No, I don’t believe he got fired because he privately texted something that sounded just like what he said on the air all the time.

** Note that most of Carlson’s existing Twitter videos have done much smaller numbers.

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