The leaders of Fox News will never say this out loud, but they believe that their media empire is bigger than President Trump.
And they have billions of reasons to think so: Billions of dollars in revenue along with millions of loyal viewers.
Fox employees are confident that the Biden years will be prosperous for the network, and they’re not losing sleep over the prospect of “Trump TV,” according to numerous sources at the company.
But some observers think they should be concerned. It is possible that the outgoing President could damage the Fox brand and peel away disillusioned viewers if he launches a media company of his own. It is possible that the right-wing media map, long controlled by Fox, is about to become balkanized.
In the days since Fox and the other major networks called the election for President-elect Joe Biden, Trump has been stoking anger at Fox and promoting the much smaller and often more conspiratorial right-wing networks Newsmax and One America News.
Then again, he has also been watching Fox, tweeting quotes from favorable commentators, and seeking counsel from Fox’s 9 p.m. host, Sean Hannity.
Here’s the best way to interpret what’s going on: Trump and Fox patriarch Rupert Murdoch have had a corporate marriage of convenience for five years. Trump is threatening to break up, but Fox has been through plenty of these rough patches before.
The question now is what Trump might do after he leaves office. A Trump-branded streaming service appears more likely than a “Trump TV” cable channel. But almost anything is possible: A radio show hosted by Trump, an expansion of the Trump campaign’s current webcasts, or a licensing deal with a company like Newsmax.
What about a “Donald Trump Tonight” talk show on Fox? Is that out of the question?
The answer is no, at least not entirely. There are almost always pieces that could be moved. For example: Hannity’s been at Fox for almost 25 years now. Maybe he could retire and let Trump take his place.
But at the moment, Trump is fuming about the network’s coverage. So here is a viewers guide to the months ahead.
The roots of the relationship
Trump was a Fox News viewer before he was a Fox News star. He learned a lot about the Republican party’s base by watching the network and calling into the morning show “Fox & Friends” while still starring on NBC’s “Celebrity Apprentice.” He continued to call in to and appear on the network regularly while running for the Republican party’s nomination in 2015 and 2016, even as he attacked Fox host Megyn Kelly and lambasted some of the network’s commentators.
He has had the same carrot-and-stick approach ever since: Complimenting his Fox supporters – rewarding them with interviews and Twitter plugs and visits to the White House – while complaining about Fox’s dissenters.
Murdoch used to be vocally critical of Trump’s conduct. The media mogul famously wrote on Twitter in the summer of 2015, “When is Donald Trump going to stop embarrassing his friends, let alone the whole country?”
But Murdoch made peace with Trump as the Republican primary field narrowed and Trump won the nomination. He didn’t believe Trump would beat Hillary Clinton in the general election, but when Trump did, Murdoch reached what one family friend later called a “detente.”
The media marriage was visible for all to see on TV. Fox touted Trump and he touted the network. The Murdochs profited while Trump benefited from Fox’s promotion and propaganda.
Who has the power?
Earlier this year I wrote a book titled “Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth,” based on information from confidential sources in and around Fox. I quoted a former “Fox & Friends” producer who said outsiders misunderstood the relationship.
“People think he’s calling up ‘Fox & Friends’ and telling us what to say. Hell no. It’s the opposite,” the former producer said. “We tell him what to say.”
This braggadocious view is backed up by a scroll through Trump’s Twitter feed, which shows that he often starts his day by watching the “Friends” and repeating what they said on TV.
Trump’s Fox News fixation was a major theme of his presidency. He hired people from Fox, fired people because of Fox, and gave most of his national TV interviews to Fox. Sometimes it was hard to tell where Trump ended and Fox began. But even with this close relationship, he was still prone to sending mean tweets whenever he didn’t like something on the network. Fox executives usually just ignored his complaints. They felt that they, not the President, had the power.
It’s important to recognize that Fox has a near-monopoly position in right-wing TV. The network’s audience is extraordinarily loyal, as was demonstrated in late 2016 and early 2017 when three of Fox’s biggest stars – Megyn Kelly, Bill O’Reilly and Greta van Susteren – all left in a nine-month period, and the ratings basically stayed the same.
For many in the TV business, the lesson was that, on Fox at least, everyone is replaceable. Does that lesson apply to Trump too?
In some ways he is Fox’s biggest star of the past five years. But now his presidential show is ending.
Trump might think that Fox needs his star power, and on the margins it’s true that Trump appearances and interviews are right-wing ratings boosters. But the network was No. 1 long before he became a politician.
As sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild wrote in her 2016 book “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right,” about Tea Party supporters in Louisiana, “Fox News stands next to industry, state government, church, and the regular media as an extra pillar of political culture all its own.”
“To some,” she explained, “Fox is family.”
It takes a lot more than a Trump tweet to convince people to abandon family.
Fox may be vulnerable
Nevertheless, Trump might be trying to dissolve this media marriage.
In line with his past jabs at Fox’s news coverage, he wrote on Thursday that “@FoxNews daytime ratings have completely collapsed. Weekend daytime even WORSE.”
Fox’s daytime ratings are looking somewhat soft this week, but that’s not a surprise, since Biden’s victory is interpreted as bad news by the Fox base.
The network is also feeling pressure from the far-right, from channels such as Newsmax, which are criticizing Fox for projecting Biden’s win in Arizona and calling Biden the president-elect.
Newsmax’s ratings have skyrocketed in recent days, but Fox is still heads and shoulders above all of its challengers.
Trump’s tweet on Thursday continued: “Very sad to watch this happen, but they forgot what made them successful, what got them there. They forgot the Golden Goose. The biggest difference between the 2016 Election, and 2020, was @FoxNews!”
Trump leveled similar charges against Fox throughout the 2020 campaign.
But his assertion that he was Fox’s “Golden Goose” doesn’t add up. The network has been growing steadily for years, thanks to a loyal audience that distrusts most of the rest of the national media. Stars like Hannity encourage and worsen this alienation each day by attacking what he calls “fake” news.
Sources inside Fox predicted that Trump would snap back to normal and praise the network’s opinion hosts in a day or two. Earlier this week, he posted numerous videos from both Fox and Newsmax’s pro-Trump shows.
Axios reported on Thursday that “Trump has told friends he wants to start a digital media company to clobber Fox News.”
A subscription streaming service would let him convert rallygoers into paying customers and compete with Fox at the same time.
A Fox insider heaped doubt on that idea, however, by pointing out that Trump is old-fashioned – he is obsessed with big-screen television, not newfound streaming apps.
When I was working on my book, the Murdoch family friend told me of the relationship between Trump and Fox, “There was something in it for both of them. At the end of the day, business trumps ideology. Business trumps principle.”
Whatever he decides to do, the coming months will go a long way toward answering a two-sided question: Does Fox need Trump more, or does Trump need Fox more?