Four years ago when polls pointed to a win for Hillary Clinton, the next move expected for then-candidate Donald Trump was a TV channel bearing his name.
His surprise victory changed all that. But with President Trump exiting the White House in January 2021 after losing his reelection bid last week to former Vice President Joe Biden, speculation about his future as a media entity has reemerged.
Trump’s potency as a TV attraction has been proved by the ratings performance of cable news networks, which have covered his presidency as a saga unfolding in real time with volatility, surprises and a large cast of characters. Audience levels for CNN, Fox News and MSNBC have risen since Trump officially entered his first presidential race in 2015 and reached record levels this year.
But launching a cable network with Trump’s name — an idea floated four years ago — would be a difficult climb in the TV landscape, where consumers have shifted away from pay TV subscriptions. As the universe of traditional pay TV customers slowly but steadily diminishes, getting operators to pay a license fee to carry a new channel would be a major challenge.
“There’s no way you can start a new network in this environment,” said Derek Baine, an analyst for Kagan, a media research group for S&P Global Market Intelligence.
Cable and satellite subscriptions have declined from 97.5 million in 2016 to 79.2 million at the end of the third quarter of this year, according to Kagan’s data.
Other media executives who have dealt with Trump say privately the president likely does not want the heavy lift involved in getting a new channel launched. Baine said it would be more viable for Trump to be involved in the acquisition of an existing channel that already caters to his rabid followers.
A White House spokesperson declined to comment.
The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year on a Trump-friendly group looking to acquire San Diego-based One America News, a small but more Trump-loyal outlet owned by the privately held Herring Networks. The company has said OAN is not for sale.
The easier route for Trump is to sign on as a program host or paid contributor at an established network.
Fox News, where Trump’s views align with its conservative opinion hosts, would be an obvious fit from an audience perspective. Trump already believes he is personally responsible for the channel’s dominance in the ratings, although Rupert Murdoch’s operation has been the most-watched cable news source since 2002.
“If they are smart, Fox will pay Trump a lot of money to be exclusive to their network,” said Jon Klein, a veteran TV news executive and former president of CNN.
Fox News would provide Trump with the largest potential audience and the best opportunity of a big payday — its three prime-time hosts, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, all make eight-figure annual salaries and the network delivers strong profits for parent Fox Corp. But if Trump positions himself as a candidate for the 2024 Republican nomination, as many in the president’s inner circle expect, he could not have a program or paid role on the network, a long-standing policy for all major news organizations.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee had to quit his Saturday night program on Fox News before he pursued the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum were dropped as paid contributors when they entered the 2012 presidential race.
TV deals for former presidents are nothing new, as their rarefied experience in the White House provides a unique perspective on the world.
In the early 1960s, Harry Truman did a series of interview programs analyzing his presidency. Dwight D. Eisenhower and Gerald Ford signed deals as network news commentators after they left the Oval Office. Bill Clinton even had aspirations of becoming the next Oprah Winfrey, meeting with at least one network in 2002 about the possibility of hosting his own talk show.
Barack Obama, relaxed and charismatic on TV, could have likely written his own ticket for an on-camera career. But he chose instead to enter a lucrative production deal with the streaming behemoth Netfli-.
Trump was already a TV star before his presidency, as NBC transformed the real estate mogul into the host of the competition reality show “The Apprentice,” elevating his notoriety exponentially from 2004 to 2015. Even in losing last week’s election, he drew the second-largest number of votes in history.
A Fox News role for Trump would require some fence mending. Trump grew increasingly irritated during the 2020 campaign over the network’s coverage of the presidential race by its journalists and pollsters. The White House is angry about the call by the Fox News decision desk on election night to project that Arizona and its 11 electoral votes would go to Democratic nominee and now President-elect Joe Biden.
Arizona has not been called by other networks, but Biden holds a lead in the state’s vote count. The Democrat would still exceed the needed 270 electoral votes for the presidency in the unlikely event the result is different.
There are other suitors if Trump does not land at Fox News. Trump has an open invitation to join Newsmax, a conservative cable and digital channel based in West Palm Beach, Fla., with studios in New York.
“Donald Trump was, is and always will be a ratings phenomena,” said Christopher Ruddy, majority owner and chief executive of Newsmax. “After the presidency, we’d welcome his new show on Newsmax in a heartbeat.”
Newsmax skews to the right of Fox News to the point where it did not call Biden the winner of the election on Saturday, unlike every other major outlet.
“The election remains very close and President Trump continues to contest results in several states,” the network told its viewers. “All votes should be counted. The media should not make the determination of a winner under these circumstances.”
The network has continued to give sustenance to Trump’s refusal to concede the election and to his campaign’s pursuit of legal challenges of the vote in a number of states. There has been no evidence showing fraud widespread enough to overturn the election results.
Newsmax only gets a fraction of the audience that Fox News attracts. But it has been growing, supplementing its cable and satellite subscribers with distribution on streaming platforms such as Roku. Newsmax is available in 58 million homes and is on track to break even next year, Baine said.
The network has started to invest in higher-profile personalities such as Greg Kelly, a former Fox News correspondent and onetime host of “Good Day New York,” the leading local morning news program in the New York market. The addition of Trump would undoubtedly boost the channel’s ratings and distribution.
One media executive who has done business with the president in the past and spoke on the condition of anonymity believed Trump’s post-White House career could be on the radio.
Back in March, Trump floated the idea of doing a daily two-hour radio program from the White House where he could take calls from listeners, answering questions about the spread of the coronavirus, the New York Times reported. According to White House officials, the president did not want to move ahead with the program because he feared it would compete with conservative talk radio stalwart Rush Limbaugh, suggesting he had something longer term in mind.
The concept is gaining currency again as Limbaugh, a major Trump advocate, told listeners he is not making progress in his battle with lung cancer. He is likely to depart soon from his program, which is distributed to 600 stations across the country by iHeartRadio.
Trump would inherit a loyal audience from Limbaugh if he replaced him at the microphone. The media executive said the ability of Trump to do a radio program from a studio at his Mar-a-Lago retreat in Florida — along with hefty compensation — would likely appeal to him.
But Limbaugh’s well-honed act would not be easy to replicate, according to Michael Harrison, a media consultant and publisher of the radio trade journal Talkers.
“With all due respect for the president, he cannot hold a candle to Rush when it comes to the demands and expectations of doing a high-profile daily three-hour talk show, which requires hours of prep per day, an original take on the issues and the ability to connect the complex dots of presenting a thesis and then setting about supporting it in a cogent manner,” Harrison said. “Trump is a showman, but what Rush listeners expect is a much more sophisticated and nuanced approach to creating a meaningful listening experience than what it takes to hold court and mug over a campaign rally before thousands of adoring followers.”