Depending on whom you ask, Don Lemon is planting his feet firmly in media’s next frontier. Or its last one.
The former CNN star anchor is the latest in a parade of onetime TV-news personnel to dip their toes into the entrepreneurial waters of digital and social media. He announced in early January that he would launch “The Don Lemon Show” on X, part of a bid to build a broader media outlet. “Don is extremely passionate about launching his own media company,” says Oren Rosenbaum, partner and head of audio at UTA, which represented Lemon in his deal with the social-media giant. “His first priority is the show, and as that becomes more and more successful, he will build a business around that and become a platform for other voices.”
Lemon isn’t alone. Tucker Carlson, the former Fox News opinion host, is using X for similar goals.
The platform also enlisted Tulsi Gabbard, the former Hawaii congresswoman, and sportscaster Jim Rome to launch programming.
Some observers see these as typical moves for talent that need to start anew after breaking bad with their mainstream media employers. Carlson was ousted from Fox News after a run so controversial most mainstream advertisers wouldn’t support it. Lemon parted ways with CNN last year after proving too provocative for his new morning-news duties. “There are real reasons why no traditional news star has decided to make the jump to digital — without being pushed,” says one talent-management executive. “To create meaningful journalistic content — and to pay people meaningfully for it — you need the ability to pool resources and amortize costs across projects and people. We haven’t figured out how to do that digitally yet. We need to!” Indeed, a range of business models are in play, with varying concepts for determining and driving revenue.
Still, there have been some intriguing success stories. Megyn Kelly, the former Fox News and NBC News anchor, recently renewed a distribution deal for her digital program with Sirius XM and co-moderated a Republican primary debate for NewsNation. Dan Harris, a veteran of ABC’s “Nightline” and “Good Morning America,” left the company to start a wellness venture, Ten Percent Happier.
And figures in similar lines of business have found a big response. Conan O’Brien sold his Team Coco podcast company to SiriusXM for a reported $150 million in 2022. Pat McAfee, the ex-Indianapolis Colts player, has gained new traction at ESPN, of all places, via a rowdy YouTube show he licenses to the sports media giant to the tune of $17 million per year.
This isn’t how things used to work. When David Letterman didn’t get the “Tonight Show” gig at NBC, he moved to a broadcast rival. CBS was happy to have him and to make inroads in late-night TV. A digital startup or subscription business was seen as the inevitable result of not getting along wit the corporate brass.
Yet some have built their own businesses. Soledad O’Brien launched a production company after she left CNN and debuted a syndicated public-affairs talk program with Sony and Hearst. Dan Rather started a series of news programs on the cable outlet once known as HDNet after his 2008 exit from CBS News.
More may be looming. “This is a really strong piece of evidence of how the business model of television and broadcasting has evolved quickly into an overwhelming flood of niches,” says Tim Hanlon, CEO of The Vertere Group, a media and marketing consultancy. “Some media personalities are broadly appealing, and there are a whole bunch more who are more appealing to targeted audiences.”
Lemon had long harbored ambitions of launching a show that let him push CNN’s boundaries. This is, after all, the anchor who opened a primetime hour in 2018 by saying, “This is CNN Tonight; I’m Don Lemon. The president of the United States is racist. A lot of us already knew that.” When CNN was trying to launch the CNN+ streaming service, Lemon was to host a talk program with a live in-studio audience.
Thriving without a media giant in the mix means working in alternative ways. There won’t be a massive TV company running free promos across its portfolio of outlets to spread the word about a splashy interview or hot take. Anchors may have to spend time considering private calls with subscribers, merchandise and events, says Hanlon. “Not everybody is up to it.”
TV’s long defense against big names going digital is that they will never get the audience sizes they did on, say, CNN or Fox News Channel. That’s probably true. Still, they can command a sliver all their own that may no longer go to the mainstream outlet for a fix. As more popular personalities migrate, those numbers just might add up.