Just having a rabid following isn't necessarily enough to build a sustainable business.
Speculation is ramping up again that Republican candidate Donald Trump might be looking at starting his own TV channel or media company if he loses the upcoming presidential election, based on a recent report from the Financial Times.
But even if he did so, is there any realistic chance that Trump TV would actually be able to build a business based around the former reality TV star? The odds are not good.
It’s worth noting that Trump dismissed similar rumors after Vanity Fair published a piece in June saying he and adviser Roger Ailes, the former CEO of Fox News, were considering launching a media company. According to Trump, there was no truth to the rumor.
Now, however, the Financial Times reports that Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, the publisher of The Observer, has met with Aryeh Bourkoff to discuss a potential TV venture.
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Obviously, because the candidate is more or less denying that he has any such plans, the details of what Trump or his advisers might be thinking of are difficult to pin down. But Vanity Fair‘s sources said the vision was a full-fledged network like Fox News. The likelihood of Trump being able to create a standalone network that would compete with Fox, however, and possibly even take its place on cable boxes, is extremely low.
There’s no question that the former Apprentice host has developed a large following, which he has built through the strategic use of social media as well as hundreds of millions of dollars worth of free advertising from news channels during the election.
Trump could also presumably lure certain right-wing commentators away from Fox, including Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly, each of whom has their own following. But just having an audience doesn’t necessarily translate into a sustainable business.
“Donald Trump has an audience, he has a message. It’s a matter of: can that sustain an entire network? I think it’s possible that it could,” Glenn Hower, senior analyst for media/entertainment at market research firm Parks Associates, tells Fortune.
The analyst adds, however, that there have been plenty of examples of similar attempts that have failed, including a subscription service launched by former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. “Just given what we’ve seen in the past, especially with the Palin network, it’s risky,” Hower says.
Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network is another example of how difficult it can be to build a standalone TV service. The talk-show host launched in 2011 with much fanfare.
Despite her star power, however, it took more than four years and over $300 million in losses before the Winfrey network turned the corner and actually broke even. That’s a substantial investment—even for someone who claims to be as rich as Trump.
Former vice president Al Gore launched a TV network called Current TV that managed to survive for several years before being acquired by Al Jazeera in 2013, but the company’s subsequent attempt to turn it into a news network failed, costing as much as a billion dollars.
Trump TV doesn’t necessarily have to be a traditional cable-style channel or network. Thanks to streaming video platforms and the web, anyone can launch a media entity based around video, similar to the way Cheddar has with its financial news network aimed at millennials.
But even with an over-the-top streaming service, the success of a Trump media channel would not be assured. Palin tried to charge subscribers $9.95 a month for her web channel in 2014 and it shut down one year later, and so did a similar attempt by Ron Paul. Even a digital venture is going to lose money for at least a year and a half to two years, Hower posits. “By the end of that 24 months, then you have a better idea of what your profitability forecast looks like.”
It’s possible that Trump and his friends at Breitbart News could build something similar to right-wing talk-show host Glenn Beck’s Blaze Media, which has a subscription business and is also carried on a number of traditional cable packages.
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Beck launched The Blaze in 2014 and has an estimated 400,000 subscribers paying $9.95 a month for the service, but some analysts believe its reach has peaked.
“Glenn Beck has carved out his own network and audience. From the standpoint of profitability, it’s a little tougher to put a measuring stick on what is successful and what isn’t,” says Hower.
But is building a modestly-successful niche media business going to be enough to satisfy the former reality TV host and presidential candidate? Given the size of Trump’s ego, that seems difficult to believe. But building anything else could be too ambitious an undertaking even for the great Donald Trump.