TALLAHASSEE, Florida — There was still an hour to go before Donald Trump’s speech inside Tampa’s MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre, and the 10,000-person crowd was growing restless. So Blaise Ingoglia, Florida’s GOP chair and the evening’s emcee, gave them what they wanted.
The jumbotron cut from the podium to a black-and-white homemade sign with the word “Media” scrawled next to a big thumbs-down. “So tell us what you really think of the liberal media,” Ingoglia chuckled from the stage as the crowd turned to serenade the media pen with a deafening chorus of boos.
At around the same time, 1,100 miles north of the rally, the Republican nominee had just launched a media brand of his own. Inside Trump Tower’s “war room,” Trump campaign advisers Boris Epshteyn and Cliff Sims went live on Facebook in what would be the first-ever Trump TV nightly news broadcast: a half-hour live analysis show with guests from Trump’s campaign and inner circle serving as a lead-in for the candidate’s rallies and counterprogramming for network nightly news.
The war room show is the latest in a series of experimental live video broadcasts for Trump. Around the third and final debate, his Facebook page hosted a pre- and post- livestream event — it was viewed 9 million times — in what may have been the inaugural broadcast of a forthcoming Trump News Network. The prospect of the Trump brand extending into video news has been the subject of reporting and speculation for months. Last week, though, the rumors inched closer to reality after a Financial Times report that Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner was in the early phases of shopping a Trump TV network. Last Wednesday, before the final debate, in response to post-election Trump TV speculation, Trump campaign CEO (and former head of Breitbart’s news organization) Steve Bannon was coy, telling CNN only that "Trump is an entrepreneur."
But while the New York media beat is abuzz with talk of Trump TV, Trump has denied he has broadcast or video-on-demand ambitions after Nov. 8. And out on the campaign trail even his ardent supporters said they have mixed feelings about watching — much less paying for — Trump TV. This disconnect — between the outpouring of vocal rally support for Trump’s candidacy and brand and the desire to shell out real money for access to it — will be the crucial question facing any attempt to launch Trump TV, especially in the difficult subscription-service industry. Trump may have created a political movement, but should he lose next month, it’s unclear if anyone will pay to keep it alive on their screens.
Like many supporters showing up to four of Trump’s campaign stops in Florida this week — in St. Augustine, Tampa, Sanford, and Tallahassee — Don Griffin, a small-businessman from Ridge Manor, is frustrated with mainstream coverage of his candidate.
In recent months, he’s stopped watching CNN and the major broadcast networks after feeling they were paying too much attention to Trump’s sexual assault allegations while not properly vetting Hillary Clinton. Left with only Fox News, Griffin welcomed a Trump media offering. “He’s got the money and connections to do it,” Griffin told BuzzFeed News. “Oh, man I’d watch it in a heartbeat, I sure would. And I’d love it.”
But if the enthusiasm was there, the desire to pay up was harder to come by. “No, I probably wouldn’t pay for it,” Griffin sighed, suggesting that if Trump didn’t launch a network he might consider “not watching news altogether.”
Kristen, a Trump supporter from Plant City, agreed that she’d watch, but said paying was a step too far. "It should be free,” she said. “The truth should be free and I shouldn’t have to pay just to get a nonbiased opinion." Of the 41 people BuzzFeed News spoke with over two days, eight indicated they’d pay for any kind of Trump offering.
That kind of apathy doesn’t bode well for potential business models. Given the costs of setting up a cable news network, an online streaming or subscription VOD service — like that of Glenn Beck’s GBTV — might make the most financial sense for Trump. A recent report by Reuters suggested that at $9.99 per month Trump would might need more than 500,000 subscribers to break even.
But fleshing out a large enough subscriber base has proved challenging, even for formidable brands and companies. The Canadian telecoms company Rogers announced it will shutter its Netflix competitor, Shomi, next month after securing only 700,000 subscribers and will book a substantial loss on the project of near $100 million. In Australia, Foxtel’s $10-a-month streaming video service will also close down this month after it was unable to attract enough paying customers.
Even big media personalities like Beck, who drew 2 million plus viewers while on Fox News, reach more modest numbers on VOD; Beck won't release numbers but reports suggest GBTV draws around 400,000 subscribers (in its first year, Beck reportedly made $40 million in revenue from around 300,000 subscribers as well as advertising). “I would start an [over-the-top] product and go for a $19.99- or a $10-a-month subscription — maybe $19.99 with a premium wrestling event Donald Trump might do and roll in the money,” Beck told BuzzFeed News in August when the initial Trump TV rumors began to swirl.
Still, Trump appears to be workshopping the idea of his own brand of MSM counterprogramming as his criticism of the media has taken on a dark tone. In the campaign’s final weeks, Trump has accused the media of rigging the election in favor of Clinton, and two weeks ago, a CNN reporter found a sign left in a Florida press pen that said “MEDIA” with a swastika next to it. This weekend, BuzzFeed News recorded footage of Trump supporters using the phrase Lügenpresse — an old Nazi term for reporters.
On Tuesday in Sanford, a Trump supporter stood outside the media area yelling, “Biased! Run for your life!" In Tallahassee, a section of the crowd who didn't make it into the sold out rally burst into a “Shut down CNN!” chant.
Trump also stoked the flames Monday night in Tampa, asking the media to “turn the cameras to see this crowd” — and then chastising the press pen. “They’re trying to fix the election and they don’t want to show the crowd and what’s happening here,” he told the sellout crowd.
A number of the supporters BuzzFeed News spoke with believe the jeers are not only justified, but effective. “Trump is letting it be known what's being done to him,” said Mary, a supporter in St. Augustine. Wayne Langston, a Tallahassee businessman, said Trump’s rallies have helped the country see the press in a new light. “As with everything else, Mr. Trump is exposing what’s wrong inside this country so it can be fixed,” he said.
And when it comes to the more sinister intimidation of the media, supporters across the Florida rallies simply don’t trust the most disturbing reports. “Can we be sure it was a Trump supporter that left the swastika sign?” said Ian, a St. Augustine rally attendee. “I haven't seen aggression and physical altercations myself, so I don't trust the media reporting them.” Ann, a Tampa resident, agreed, suggesting violent chants and some alt-right aggression was the work of plants from the Clinton campaign.
Among the complaints of media bias is the press’s ongoing reporting of the sexual assault allegations against Trump. “They're stuck on the 11 women who have said that Trump kissed them when they didn't want it,” Eva, a St. Augustine resident, told BuzzFeed News. “I can defend myself against a kiss. I want to ask those women myself, ‘What did you do if you didn't want it?’” Another St. Augustine woman, who identified herself as M.J., saw reporting on the allegations as proof of diminishing standards in the press. “This is hearsay," she said. "Women's reports from 12 years ago? Who cares?”
Similar to Trump’s promise to return America to its glory days, supporters told BuzzFeed News they yearned for a return to traditional media and the ethics. “Brinkley and Cronkite were really the last great journalists who truly reported the news,” said Jim Ayers, a retired mortgage salesman from Tallahassee. "It’s all devolved since and we need more of their style of reporting."
This demand for the golden age of broadcast journalists is its own unique problem for Trump TV, given the radical shifts in media consumption toward mobile, social, and online video. Even for the self-proclaimed billionaire, building a traditional cable network might be impossible, given the exorbitant costs and struggles to get mainstream carriage. And after a particularly polarizing campaign, Trump could also face difficulties securing lucrative and necessary ad deals. But the lack of a cable offering could be a problem. Trump’s core demographic for a news network offering would undoubtedly skew older and recent reports on subscription VOD demographics show that, while growing, penetration among subscribers 45 to 54 years old has not quite breached 40%. Among the Trump supporters BuzzFeed News spoke with, a majority were not comfortable watching a Trump TV on a streaming network and were only interested in a cable package offering.
Still, for some supporters, a Trump TV network could be a viable journalistic solution. “I think there’ll need to be something like Trump Network to really focus on all the corruption in the government,” Jana, a Tampa resident who works in education, told BuzzFeed News. “Say Hillary ends up winning — I think she’ll be impeached. And I think a Trump Network would absolutely help to do that. And I’d pay for that, you bet I would.”
Others though, like Martha, feel that adding another voice to a crowded media ecosystem wouldn’t solve the problem of bias.“That money could be better used,” she said. “How about we start putting them in a Trump Journalism School where we bring in young reporters in training who want to report the truth and then go out and infiltrate the ABCs and CNNs? That might have a better shot at changing things.”
If Trump is planning on a full-scale expansion of his video news play, his supporters suggest he hurry up. “He better do it ASAP — I know I’d pay and watch now, but who knows if I would next year,” Tampa supporter John Bradley told BuzzFeed News. And Nick Goody, from Vero Beach, also stressed the urgency. “Obviously, this is a movement that has a lot of traction, but it’s going to evaporate very quickly in the event of a loss,” he said, noting that the window for many to care about politics will close soon after Nov. 8.
“So if he wanted to make any kind of challenge to a network like Fox, he’s got to continue that movement he’s started and that means doing it before everyone forgets.”