In the aftermath of the US election, Donald Trump has fallen out with an old friend: Fox News. His rants against the dominant cable network have buffeted Fox Corp’s stock price, as investors question whether a rumoured Trump television network could slice into the conservative media business that the Murdochs have commanded for decades.
Even as viewership of traditional TV has cratered, Fox News has drawn ever-higher ratings to become the most-watched basic cable channel in the US. The network has persevered through Republican and Democratic presidencies, the rise of the Tea Party, and the influx of online insurgents like Breitbart — and emerged mostly unscathed.
But the threat of competition from conservative media’s biggest star, the president himself, who has the nominal support of 71m Americans who voted for him, is new territory for Fox.
Any post-presidency media plans for Mr Trump remain to be determined, but there are options available to him. Investors see an opportunity to capitalise on the growing group of Americans who now view Fox News as too moderate, according to interviews with bankers, executives and advisers in the industry.
Create a new television network
The most expensive move would be starting a traditional TV channel, a strategy most dismiss as too arduous. It costs hundreds of millions to get initial distribution agreements with major cable operators, requiring a significant amount of capital upfront. And with cable TV in decline, existing operators are loath to take on extra channels.
As Mr Trump publicly turned on Fox, so did his supporters, sending ratings surging at smaller niche competitors such as Newsmax and One America News Network (OANN). But OANN and Newsmax are examples of how difficult it is to grow a conservative network — or any cable channel.
Newsmax benefited from Mr Murdoch’s pioneering efforts, which proved the commercial value of conservative news. But founder Chris Ruddy and his investors still had to pump in more than $100m to secure distribution. Six years on, the company is just on the cusp of breaking even, according to people familiar with its finances.
Charles Herring, president of OANN, said the company is “profitable and debt free”. He said OANN’s viewer comments forum has been “flooded with former Fox News viewers telling us why they deserted Fox News for OANN”.
These networks remain minnows compared to Fox, which commanded 13.7m viewers on election night, beating rivals CNN and MSNBC as well as traditional broadcasters. Newsmax’s audience peaked at around 600,000 viewers that night.
Fox News is set to make $2.9bn in revenue this year, compared to just $26m for Newsmax and $48m for OANN, according to estimates by Kagan, the media research unit of S&P Global.
Thanks to its strong ratings, Fox has been able to command high affiliate fees — payments from cable operators to carry the channel. Kagan anticipates Fox News will make $1.6bn from those fees this year and $1.2bn in advertising sales. Cable companies do not pay Newsmax anything to carry its channel, and pay OANN only $33m.
“Until just the last month, [Newsmax and OANN] have remained pretty small,” said Nicole Hemmer, a historian and author of the book Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.
“That is the big test right now: are there enough Trump supporters . . . who can turn something like Newsmax into something as profitable as Fox News?”
Partner with or buy an existing TV network
An easier route would be partnering with or even acquiring an existing network, and using its distribution network to broadcast Mr Trump’s message.
For mainstream media companies such as ViacomCBS, whose controlling shareholder Shari Redstone is friendly with Mr Trump, “there is a conversation to be had” with the outgoing president because of the huge audience he could bring, said a longtime media banker.
“But there are so many question marks,” the banker warned. “How do you price that risk? Think of the regulatory issues. Will he run again in four years? How involved will he be? It’s just too complicated”.
ViacomCBS has no plans to launch a conservative news channel, said a person close to the company.
The most likely partner would be Newsmax. Mr Ruddy, who is close to Mr Trump, told the Financial Times this month he has “never closed the door” on teaming up with the outgoing president but declined to say whether they were in active discussions.
Hicks, a Texas private equity group, has been trying to buy Newsmax and OANN in recent months, according to people familiar with the efforts. The investment group, which has ties to powerful Republican families such as the Bushes and the Ricketts, sees an opportunity to capitalise on a hard-right audience.
“Fox is trapped in the middle of trying to be both Trump TV and CNN,” said one person familiar with Hicks’ thinking. Hicks declined to comment.
Hicks has recently held talks with Todd Ricketts, finance chair of the Republican National Committee, about working together on an acquisition of Newsmax or OANN, according to people close to the discussions. Mr Trump has not been a part of these conversations, these people said, although he is a friend of Texas billionaire Tom Hicks and could potentially be involved in the future.
The Wall Street Journal first reported Hicks’ interest in Newsmax.
Create a digital streaming service
Mr Trump has recently told associates he wants to create a digital-only platform for Trump TV, according to people who have spoken to him. This would pit Mr Trump against Fox Nation, Fox News’s $6-a-month streaming service that offers on-demand programming from presenters such as Tucker Carlson.
Lachlan Murdoch, Fox’s chief executive, has called the service “a success”, but the company has not disclosed subscriber numbers two years after its launch.
A streaming service, which is significantly less expensive to start, would be a way to quickly monetise the outgoing president’s vast audience online, where Facebook, Twitter and newer social media sites like Parler have been hotbeds for Trump supporters.
Still, Mr Trump would need to invest in marketing and technology. And rival digital services have struggled to live up to expectations.
Glenn Beck, the former Fox News host, launched The Blaze digital service a decade ago with much fanfare. Mr Beck also tried to secure distribution deals with cable providers, but persuading the biggest distributors to take the channel proved difficult.
The company last year abandoned its cable channel altogether, after bulking up through a merger with rival CRTV in a market crowded by online competitors such as Breitbart, The Daily Caller and the Daily Wire.
Host a show
The easiest option for Mr Trump might be no Trump TV at all.
Instead of starting his own venture, Mr Trump could instead host shows on Fox or other existing conservative media outlets. That could be lucrative for the former president and give him a large, influential platform.
“He could easily make $40m a year,” said one former senior Fox executive. “Fox, possibly to their detriment, really has very little control over these [show hosts]. He could say whatever he wants. And he wouldn’t have to spend all the money finding his own distribution.”
Mr Trump could also turn to talk radio, where personalities like Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern have struck plum contracts for decades. Mr Stern is nearing a contract renewal with Sirius XM to pay him $120m a year, according to Bloomberg. Mr Limbaugh, who commands about 15m listeners per week, earlier this year renewed his contract with iHeartMedia.
Even the relatively small podcasting industry is now offering big paydays for stars, with Spotify giving Joe Rogan, a popular comedian, $100m to make his podcast exclusive to its app.
Ms Hemmer believes Fox is the most likely destination for Mr Trump, despite the current rift.
“In addition to his ongoing addiction to Fox News, he likes to be associated with the highest rated and most prestigious things,” she said. “And in the world of conservative media, Fox News is prestige.”