Trump TV will need more than tweets

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre on October 24, 2016 in Tampa, Florida.
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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre on October 24, 2016 in Tampa, Florida.

If Donald Trump loses in next month's presidential election, it's unlikely the Republican candidate will go quietly.

Amid reports that he is considering starting his own media platform, it remains to be seen just how many people will be listening.

In the 16 months since he launched his campaign, Trump has attracted a wide and loyal following, whose support has been stoked by daily bursts of cheerleading and attacks on social media.

Now, the GOP candidate is reportedly mulling the idea of converting that audience into a television network to keep his political message in front of the tens of millions of voters expected to turn out for him next month.

Once the klieg lights of the presidential campaign are turned off, though, it's not clear how many of his millions of social media followers would become daily viewers of a potential Trump TV network.

Some of his audience, for example, consists of only occasional visitors curious about his most inflammatory posts, along with political journalists, consultants and others with a professional interest in following his erratic campaign.

An unknown portion of his traffic is generated by automated Twitter accounts programmed to send out tweets. One recent study estimated that as much as a third of pro-Trump Twitter traffic was generated by these bots during the third and final presidential debate Oct. 19.

Aside from occasional traffic surges, the volume of Trump's average Twitter mentions represent less than 3 percent of the total number of followers of his account, based on data provided by Spredfast, a social media marketing firm. Over the last six months, Trump's 12.7 million followers generated an average of just 311,000 daily mentions and about 87,000 retweets a day. (Those numbers include any automated "bot" traffic.)

Trump's Twitter traffic compares favorably with other politicians and celebrities, according to Chris Kerns, Spredfast's head of research.

"(But) if he decides to pursue Trump TV post-election, we'll see how much of his audience is made of detractors, who will stop paying attention if he loses," Kerns said via email.

Trump's biggest TV audience successes, of course, were scored in the early seasons of his NBC reality show, "The Apprentice," which drew some 28 million for its first season finale in 2004. But the audience steadily declined over the years, drawing fewer than 2 million viewers in the 18- to 49-year-old demographic that advertisers pay to reach.

Those numbers are impressive, but launching a new TV channel is a much more difficult undertaking than attracting a large audience to a single weekly program on an established TV network. And it's much more costly.

No matter how large his potential audience, launching a conventional cable TV network means lining up multiple deals with cable system operators to carry the channel — or spending upfront to buy a failing channel and try to rebrand it. In 2013, Al Jazeera spent $500 million to buy Current TV, launched in 2005 by Democrat Al Gore and others after his failed presidential bid in 2000.

Building or buying a cable channel would be only the start of the investment required. Oprah Winfrey's OWN network turned its first profit four years after launch, but not without an investment of more than $500 million by its joint venture partner, Discovery Communications.

Running a 24-hour cable news network is even more costly. Last year, the three major 24-hour news channels boosted overall newsroom spending by a combined 2 percent to $1.9 billion, according to Pew Research, citing estimates by SNL Kagan. CNN spent an estimated $817 million; Fox spent $828 million; and MSNBC spent $291 million, according to the report.

Trump could pass on cable TV and extend his social media presence with digital video, a strategy the campaign has introduced recently with live Facebook streams.

On Monday, one of his political rallies in a St. Augustine, Florida, generated 60,000 concurrent views on Facebook. Replays of recent rallies posted on Facebook have logged bigger numbers, including 2.1 million views of a Naples, Florida, event Sunday; 1.7 million views of a Cleveland appearance; and 1.2 million views of a Pennsylvania event last week.

On the night of the third debate, Trump's Facebook page offered its own coverage — a possible sample of what Trump TV might look like —which has drawn more than 9 million views.

But online video views are a poor indication of the level of engagement required to sustain a TV show, let alone a 24-hour cable network. Facebook, for example, counts as a "view" any time a video was played for as little as three seconds. TV ratings, on the other hand, typically count the average number of viewers who watch for at least 15 minutes.

Facebook also doesn't offer the option for advertising on its live streams, which makes it problematic as a commercial platform for a potential Trump TV venture.

Correction: The first season finale for "The Apprentice" was in 2004. An earlier version misstated the year.