Cable News Is Already Casting for a Trump Replacement
If the Democrats take the president down, they may take down cable news's ratings with him. Who is going to be the next star the press fixates on?
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (left) and Beto O'Rourke, two Democrats who could drive ratings in a post-Trump era. Photos by Scott Kowalchyk/CBS via Getty
Someday, not too long from now, Donald Trump will no longer be president of the United States.
There’s a growing contingent of Democrats, including California Congresswoman Maxine Waters, who believe that impeachment proceedings should begin immediately, independent of the pace and findings of the Robert Mueller probe. Waters and other like-minded Democrats will do everything they can to make sure Trump isn’t able to make it all the way through his first term.
Even if he emerges unscathed from Democrats’ attempts at impeachment, many pundits think that Trump still faces an uphill battle for re-election in 2020; his historically low approval ratings are seen as an indicator that “45” is highly vulnerable as he heads into a heated referendum on his first term in office. From farmers affected by Trump’s trade war with China to red-state federal workers harmed by his nonsensical and fruitless shutdown to rust belt voters who aren’t in any better shape now than they were under Barack Obama, across the map key components of the coalition that came together to lift Trump past Hillary Clinton in 2016 are at risk.
And of course, even if Trump manages to eke out another victory in 2020, barring an unprecedented constitutional crisis in which he refuses to leave office at the end of a second term, he’ll be stepping aside in 2025.
So yes, there will be, eventually, a post-Trump America.
For a good many Americans, that day couldn’t come soon enough. For the news media, however, the day that Trump boards Marine One for the last time will be a day of reckoning.
Of course, right now, such a day—a day when the hairpin turns of the Mueller investigation, the tell-all books from former White House aides, the tweets, the porn stars, all of it, are things of the past—is hard for any of us to imagine. Right now, the entire country is transfixed by the slowly unfolding TV drama we call the Trump presidency. “A generation ago, 75 percent of American television households tuned in to CBS’s hit primetime drama Dallas to find out ‘Who Shot J.R.?’” mused radio host and Fox News guest* Ethan Bearman in an email exchange. “Now, nearly forty years later, millions of Americans are once again hooked on another ‘whodunit’ which is why they regularly tune in to Rachel [Maddow] or [Sean] Hannity or Chris Cuomo because they want to know, ‘Is Trump going down?’”
Whether you are on the right, left, or somewhere in the middle, it’s probably pretty clear that cable news and its coverage of the Trump White House and its merry band of characters—many of whom have now turned state’s evidence—is giving traditional scripted Hollywood dramas a run for their money.
“Trump is too good of a plotline. The media can’t kill off its star. There is too much at stake financially,” observed Damian Petrou, an LA-based television producer who works with several of the major networks. “You might think MSNBC is all about taking down the Trump White House, but him leaving office would be a major blow to them financially. Trump is ‘must-see TV’.”
MSNBC recently beat out Fox News in key ratings for the first time in 17 years, thanks to their nearly 24/7 coverage of Trump. Media consultant Brad Adgate observed in an April piece called “The Ratings Bump of Donald Trump” that “you can expect cable television to be all-in on all things Trump for the foreseeable future, because that's where the viewers are.”
Even Trump himself recognizes that the press can’t get enough of him, recently telling the New York Times, "Another reason that I’m going to win another four years is because newspapers, television, all forms of media will tank if I’m not there because without me, their ratings are going down the tubes."
Trump may not know if Frederick Douglas is dead or alive, but he does understand television ratings and his hold over the media, which is one reason I think the odds of Trump getting re-elected in 2020 are quite a bit higher than recent polling would lead one to believe. The media needs Trump.
Disgraced former Fox News host Bill O'Reilly, whose long-running O'Reilly Factor was the top-rated TV cable news show for nearly two decades, essentially predicted that cable news will die a quick death after Trump leaves office. In an interview late last year, O'Reilly said that the current business model for cable news is entirely dependent on how the public views Trump; when he is gone, cable news may not be able to sustain itself. “Anybody in the business, in the media business, knows that the money now is generated by two things... You either like him or you hate him,” said O'Reilly. “When Trump leaves the stage, you're going to see a total collapse of cable news."
O’Reilly’s dire predictions could be sour grapes, since he lost his gig at Fox following a sexual harassment scandal, but he is correct that cable news will need a new bandwagon to hitch itself to once Trump rides off into the sunset.
Trump demonstrates that political news needs entertaining, controversial, and divisive political characters to keep the public’s attention. And the longer the media can delay the inevitable—the day when DJT is no longer front and center—the more time they will have to find an adequate replacement star.
Let’s be clear: The media does not act as a monolith, and any suggestion that there is some secret pact among the major cable news outlets to keep their money-maker in office is the stuff of conspiracy theorists. But media executives and TV news producers know a good thing when they see one, and it’s a fair bet that they are secretly rooting for some new political characters to emerge that can capture the public’s attention in the same way that Trump did the moment he glided down the golden escalator in the lobby of Trump Tower.
As anyone who has ever watched long-running soaps like General Hospital or Days of Our Lives knows, major characters can come and go, but you can’t write out a star without having a replacement or two in mind.
Take the case of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. Ever since the 29-year-old Congresswoman unexpectedly won her Democratic primary, she has been the darling of progressive media. While liberals fawn over the freshman congresswoman, her incessant ridicule by conservative outlets has made her a household name even though she has been in office less than a month. Likewise, part of the media’s fascination with former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke, including rampant speculation that he might run for president, can be chalked up to this same urge to find a new star.
Or consider the recent buzz (both positive and negative) over a possible Howard Schultz third-party candidacy. Despite Schultz’s long odds of winning even a single electoral college vote, the press wasted no time in giving the Starbucks billionaire ample coverage—the most of any third-party potential presidential candidate since Ross Perot.
The media is placing lots of bets, hoping someone, anyone, emerges on the national political scene that can capture the public’s attention—or ire—as Trump has.
In 1983, over 100 million Americans tuned in to watch the final M*A*S*H episode. And for media executives in New York and LA, there will be a “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” moment when Trump finally leaves politics.
But the longer they have to find a replacement, the better.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified Ethan Bearman as a Fox News commentator when in fact he has only been a guest on the network. We regret the error.
Arick Wierson is public relations executive, national opinion columnist, and former senior media advisor to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. You can follow him on Twitter.