Note to every major celebrity thinking about launching a media company: You are not bigger than the platform. Over the last few years, the volatile media industry has left in its wake an endless trail of big-name media figures who have learned this humbling lesson, and yet the compulsion to become a one-person media empire always seems to seduce a certain type of headstrong personality.
The latest case in point—at least according to rumors—is Donald Trump, who is said to be floating the idea of launching a Trump-branded media company sometime after the election, which polls show he is likely to lose. If true, Trump would follow in a long line of celebrities, star journalists, and politicians who have tried to parlay their sizable fan bases into bonafide media moguldom.
As enticing as that may sound, it’s a path fraught with challenges. Media is both fiercely competitive and notoriously difficult to monetize, and even businesses that succeed are facing thinner and thinner margins.
So what would a Donald Trump media empire look like? Last night, we may have gotten a small taste, when Trump teased a Facebook Live video before the final presidential debate. The video consisted of a cable news-like panel that included a pro-Trump discussion between Lieutenant General Michael Flynn and former Arizona Governor Jan Brewer. As BuzzFeedpointed out, Trump pitched the live stream as an alternative to the “biased” mainstream media. Indeed, Trump’s Facebook page has an entire playlist tagged “TrumpTV.”
But a mastery of social media doesn’t make you a media mogul. If “Trump Media Inc.” is really in the works, Trump will need a robust strategy and proven business model to pull it off. That’s a tall order. Below are a few of the models that celebrities have tried in the past—with varying degrees of success.
People who have tried It: Glenn Beck, Al Gore, Oprah Winfrey Chances of succeeding: Slim to none
The Financial Timesreported this week that Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who owns the New York Observer, had an informal discussion with a high-level investor about starting a Trump TV network. But starting a cable network is inordinately difficult. Al Gore tried and failed with Current TV, which was eventually sold to Al Jazeera Media Network and turned into Al Jazeera America. That failed too. Glenn Beck launched TheBlaze TV after his contentious exit from Fox News in 2011, but the network had difficulty securing carriage deals with many major pay-TV companies. TheBlaze suffered a significant round of layoffs earlier this year.
Cable TV is still profitable for established networks, but the model is facing increasing challenges as viewers shift to on-demand, streaming, and online video viewing. Customers have grown so tired of paying for channels they never watch that pay-TV companies are increasingly offering “skinny” packages with fewer channels. That means it will be harder than ever for an unproven network to secure a place alongside incumbents on channel lineups—even if that network has the name “Trump.”
People who have tried it: Sarah Palin, Andrew Sullivan Chances of succeeding: Fair but with modest results
The paid subscription model is appealing to entrepreneurs because it reduces or eliminates the reliance on advertising, but convincing consumers to plunk down a monthly fee for anything that isn’t Netflix or Amazon is a difficult wager. Sarah Palin learned this the hard way. Her subscription video network, the Sarah Palin Channel, lasted only a year before Palin pulled the plug. Despite Palin’s enormous and distinctive brand recognition, the $10 monthly price tag proved too rich. Even if you’re able to keep the paid model going, the returns are likely to be modest. Star blogger Andrew Sullivan built up a subscriber base of around 30,000 and revenue of nearly $1 million over two years of running a paid version of The Dish. But Sullivan burned out and called it quits in 2015.
People who have tried it: Andrew Breitbart, Arianna Huffington Chances of succeeding: It was better in 2005
A decade ago, a handful of digital-first media companies were able to get in on the ground floor of an emerging business model and turn it into gold. Perhaps the biggest success story was Arianna Huffington, who sold the Huffington Post to AOL Inc. for $315 million in 2011. But with ad rates collapsing and competition for eyeballs increasingly fierce, advertiser-supported digital media is in the midst of an existential crisis in 2016, a problem underscored by mass layoffs at outlets like Mashable. Today, online advertising is largely dominated by two companies—Google and Facebook—and any pure-play digital shop is probably going to have to contend with the equivalent of digital scraps.
People who have tried it: Mike Huckabee, Eliot Spitzer Chances of succeeding: Moderate
In the end, Trump could scrap the idea of launching his own media empire and simply accept an offer to host his own show on an existing network like Fox News or even CNN. (Imagine the hate-watchers.) A number of ex-politicians have gone this route in recent years, although sustained success has proved elusive. One notable failure was Eliot Spitzer, the New York governor who resigned in disgrace in 2008 after a prostitution scandal. Two years after the scandal, someone at CNN thought it would be a good idea to let Spitzer co-host a show with Pulitzer-winning journalist Kathleen Parker. The result, In the Arena, was canceled 10 months later.
The bottom line for Trump is that rabid fandom often does not always offer a proven path to media success—and politics, in the end, is fickle. Come November 9, Trump is very likely to go from being the center of a disruptive political movement to being an election loser. How many of his supporters will continue to follow him in his new incarnation is an open question.