FACT CHECK

‘The Apprentice’ Really Might Have Deserved an Emmy

Trump claims the Emmys were rigged against ‘The Apprentice.’ Rigged? Maybe not. But did the show deserve to win back in 2004? That, we found out, might actually be true.

10.20.16 4:38 PM ET

A refrain of this election season has been the necessity to fact check the comments made at the presidential debates. And so here we are to settle one controversial claim: Should The Apprentice have won an Emmy?

At Wednesday night’s final showdown between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, Clinton dutifully listed all the instances in which Trump had argued that something was “rigged” against him, including the Emmys, which has never rewarded Trump’s reality TV competition series The Apprentice

“There was even a time when he didn’t get an Emmy for his TV program three years in a row and he started tweeting that the Emmys were rigged against him,” Clinton said, to which Trump interjected: “Should have gotten it.” 

Indeed, Trump has, as is his wont, taken to grieving in 140 characters over various Apprentice Emmys slights. 

“The Emmys are all politics, that’s why, despite nominations, The Apprentice never won—even though it should have many times over,” he tweeted in 2012. “I should have many Emmys for The Apprentice if the process were fair,” he tweeted in 2013, “in any event, it’s not my day job.” And, never one to let go of a grudge, in 2014 after another year of zero nominations for his show: “Which is worse and which is more dishonest—the Oscars or the Emmys?” 

Rigged? Unlikely. But mistaken? This is the organization that never gave Steve Carell an Emmy Award for The Office. Trump could have a point there. At one point The Apprentice was watched by as many as 28 million viewers, buoying NBC and helping keep its Must See TV branding legitimate on Thursday nights as Frasier and Friends came to an end. Critics hailed it as “irrestible.” 

Did it maybe deserve to win? Let's dig into that.

According to awards website GoldDerby.com, in a 2015 episode of Celebrity Apprentice Trump complained about the Emmy slight for the first season of The Apprentice over a decade earlier, in 2004. 

“Everybody thought I was gonna win it,” he said. “In fact, when they announced the winner, I stood up before the winner was announced. And I started walking for the Emmy. And then they announced the most boring show on television, The Amazing Race. Piece of crap.”

The piece of crap won a total of 10 Emmys in the Best Reality-Competition Series category. In fact, in the category’s 14-year history only two other shows have beaten it: Top Chef and The Voice. Despite having aired 14 seasons thus far, The Apprentice was only nominated in the category twice. 

However, let’s look into this claim that The Apprentice was considered to be a shoo-in, as Trump says, back in 2004 for that first season—something that shouldn’t be dismissed at first blush because this was at a time when the category was still new, having only existed once before, and The Amazing Race hadn’t yet racked up its Teflon steamroll of the competition. 

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Season One of The Apprentice was nominated alongside The Amazing Race, American Idol, Survivor, and Last Comic Standing in the Reality Competition category. 

It was Last Comic Standing’s first and only nomination in the category, so we can write that one off. At that point Survivor had aired six seasons and was enjoying a shell of its popularity, even if its earlier groundbreaking seasons should be considered not only responsible for the reality TV craze that dominated the 2000s, but among the genre’s best ever. 

American Idol was competing for its still-popular but controversial third season, in which Jennifer Hudson was eliminated early and dynamo Fantasia Barrino cannily beat teenage Diana DeGarmo. The season for which Idol should’ve won was the Ruben Studdard-Clay Aiken face-off the year before. This season was an also-ran. 

The Amazing Race, the remaining veteran contender, was at an advantage and disadvantage in the category. It was the reigning champion, having won the inaugural trophy the year before, but at that point in production for its seventh season and competing for its fifth (they really churned seasons out back then) it, too, was no longer the cool new show on the block with all the buzz. That was The Apprentice

Also keep in mind that this before only a fool would bet against The Amazing Race in this category. It was still considered an open race, and The Apprentice, with its shiny popularity and immediate addictiveness—not to mention a nation-sweeping catchphrase, “You’re fired!”—could arguably be pulling ahead. 

The show’s premise was both rudimentary to the time—part game show and part sociological experiment, with contestants showcasing their talents but also living in a constantly filmed fish bowl—and rather refreshing. Bucking the trend of the singing sob story, this was a show that embraced craven ambition and the selfish splendor of capitalism. 

It was cynical in the face of reality TV’s trend towards earnestness and dreams, but still somehow aspirational. These were contestants who unapologetically represented us: people weary with a paycheck-to-paycheck existence eager to prove they are worthy of the entitlement that comes along with corporate success and a seat in the boardroom. And to prove that worth Trump would, quite cheekily, degrade them with tasks like running a lemonade stand or managing a Times Square restaurant.

Calling the show “compelling,” Phil Rosenthal wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times, “While The Apprentice is not without its humor as the budding entrepreneurs inevitably stumble and jostle for position, this is a show that runs counter to the current trend in reality TV in which the wealthy are ridiculed. Instead, it shows the hard work and innovation required to become rich.” In the Newark Star-Ledger, Matt Zoller Seitz called the show “a glitzy, fast-paced TV program that simultaneously manages to critique and celebrate the Western World’s cutthroat obsession with success.” 

The contestants were personalities in their own right. Bill Rancic, future husband of red carpet host Giuliana Rancic, was the first winner, while that season birthed one of the greatest and most lingering reality TV villains ever in Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth. Before hate-watch was a word, you couldn’t wait do it each week with her.

But it was all about Trump.

Trump, as we all have come to realize, was great reality TV. He was Simon Cowell meets that “You are the weakest link!” lady, with the added benefit of being someone we all already knew. The posturing, the harrumphing, the pouty lower lip, the rudeness, the patronizing demeanor, the air of superiority: all those things that we consider presidential liabilities now were reality TV assets then. Strapping in for the wild whims of his erratic decision-making was a hoot of a ride, and viewers were lining up for tickets.

In its Emmy predictions that year, CNN called the reality competition category one of the year’s “tightest races,” owed to The Apprentice’s breakout status. Yet it lost to The Amazing Race. And here’s why. 

Trump is someone who, based on his rhetoric, should appreciate scale—and The Amazing Race, in that regard, is “Huge!” The logistics required to not just transport eleven teams of two literally around the world is one challenge. To orchestrate the dozens and dozens of crew members and producers necessary to film such a trip is an accomplishment of television production that has, all these years later, yet to be matched. 

That alone would be worth 10 Emmy wins in this category, and the organization was right to acknowledge that early on in the category’s existence, even against buzzier entries like The Apprentice

But The Amazing Race was still so popular at the time that CBS was producing three cycles of it in a calendar year, which is owed not just to the jaw-dropping nature of the globe-trotting footrace, but to the expert editing required to film a handful teams that are often in completely different cities or countries, and make it look like the race to the finish is anyone’s to win. Only so many “you’re fireds!” can compete with that.

The Apprentice was only nominated in the category one more time, the following year. Counting technical categories, it has received nine total nominations, the last one in 2009. 

Here is where it’s worth noting that Trump has actually been a voting member of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences since 2004. In 2010, he told The Hollywood Reporter, “It’s a shame that Amazing Race keeps winning, because it doesn’t deserve to win. It wins every year because they know how to politic the Emmys. Instead of shows that deserve to win, they pick Amazing Race. It’s very sad commentary…and it’s a joke. If the Emmys want their ratings, they have to pick shows that deserve it.”

Trump is right. Looking back at the category there are shows that deserved the Emmy but never won it. American Idol, Survivor, So You Think You Can Dance, and Project Runway all had seasons that could have been Emmy-winning had The Amazing Race’s global production not been such an undeniable feat. Same goes for RuPaul’s Drag Race, had it even been nominated in the category.

But The Apprentice? To quote Trump himself, “Wrong!”