President Donald Trump delivers remarks on Medicare at the Sharon L. Morse Performing Arts Center, Thursday, October 3, 2019, in The Villages, Florida.
President Donald Trump delivers remarks on Medicare at the Sharon L. Morse Performing Arts Center, Thursday, October 3, 2019, in The Villages, Florida.
PHOTO: Evan Vucci/AP
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(CNN Business) —  

Does President Trump think he can play Fox News and One America News Network off each other?

That’s one way to interpret his tweets.

One America News Network, or OANN for short, is a right-wing cable news channel that wants to take on Fox. In the past two months, Trump has tweeted about OANN seven times — after going two years without tagging the channel once.

OANN has some fans, but it is not a widely known brand – which is all the more reason why the president’s plugging it is notable. When he’s not assailing “enemy” news organizations, the president is promoting outlets he approves of, and OANN is clearly in the latter camp.

OANN executives have encouraged the presidential endorsements in their conversations with White House aides – and sometimes in public on Twitter.

Robert Herring, the channel’s CEO, regularly tags Trump in tweets. “Mr. President our young employees want to thank you for noticing all of their hard work,” he wrote in one of the posts last month.

The praise goes both ways. On Monday the president thanked both Fox and OANN in back-to-back tweets. First he sent kudos to “Fox & Friends” for its ratings, then he said “congratulations to @OANN on the great job you are doing and the big ratings jump.”

The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington said that Trump’s promotional behavior is troubling.

“Dedicate your broadcast to supporting the president and he’ll use the power of the presidency to increase your ratings and hurt your competitors (or so he claims),” CREW said Monday.

Benefiting from Trump’s promotion

For OANN, being seen as pro-Trump is a key part of the business model.

For example, the channel advertises commercial-free coverage of every single Trump rally – and sometimes shows the warm-up speakers as well.

It wants recognition in exchange. Back in March, the channel’s main Twitter account complained when Trump thanked “his supporters in the media” without mentioning OANN. “Not a single mention of One America News – one of his GREATEST supporters… @OANN calls bulls***,” the tweet said.

The channel, headquartered in San Diego, launched in 2013 into a very difficult market for independently-owned cable channels.

Distributors are reluctant to add more channels to an already-jam-packed cable bundle. That’s why, six years later, OANN is still relatively obscure. Verizon and AT&T-owned platforms carry OANN, but other distributors like Comcast and Charter do not, so the channel is not available in most homes.

But Robert Herring and his son Charles, the president of OANN, are pressing forward. They see the channel as an alternative to Fox and all the other news options on TV, including CNN.

Like Fox, OANN is a combination of newscasts and fiery conservative talk shows. Many hours of the day are just an old-fashioned news wheel, with a heavy dose of international headlines. Bombastic talk shows and segments featuring Jack Posobiec, a notorious pro-Trump Internet personality, are mixed in. At times the content veers into conspiracy theory territory.

The staff is a mix of young journalists and committed partisans. The chief White House correspondent, for example, is a former actress who is now both a reporter and right-wing commentator, Emerald Robinson.

Trump greeted her by name during an informal Q&A with reporters on Tuesday morning.

“How are you Emerald,” he said, inviting her to ask a question. “Go ahead, what’s up?”

Measuring OANN’s popularity

OANN does not subscribe to Nielsen ratings, which is usually a sign that a channel’s audience is quite small. But Charles Herring said in an email message to CNN Business that there’s a different reason: “We refuse to PAY for Nielsen data based on the excessive price.”

Instead, Herring relies on ComScore set-top-box viewership data to say that OANN was the “fourth rated cable news network” in March, behind Fox, MSNBC and CNN.

That assertion is not backed up by Nielsen – the agreed-upon currency for the TV industry – since OANN is not rated by it. But the ComScore data may explain how Trump heard about a “big ratings jump” at OANN.

Herring said he shared his data directly with Trump in late 2018, and also had “recent conversations with key White House officials.”

No one at Fox seems to be concerned about the competition. There are several other Fox wannabes in the marketplace, including Newsmax and BlazeTV, yet Fox’s ratings remain solid.

“Trump’s recent promotion of OANN hasn’t come at Fox News’s expense,” Vox’s Aaron Rupar wrote on Monday. “But it does indicate that Trump is looking these days to amplify other outlets that cover him favorably, and reliably reinforce his talking points.”

Trump has repeatedly shown that he wants to prop up multiple alternatives to the mainstream media he loves to hate.

Other Republicans also see reasons to plug OANN. Senator Rand Paul tweeted about the channel on Tuesday, saying “OANN brings much-needed variety” and “real news.”