Donald Trump Thinks He’s a Reality-TV ‘Ratings Machine.’ History Tells a Different Story.
The president-elect unleashed a Twitter rant against ‘New Celebrity Apprentice’ and host Arnold Schwarzenegger over its low ratings. But Trump has a very checkered reality-TV past.
In the words of Mike Pence’s favorite musical, Donald Trump will never be satisfied.
Our president-elect has proudly displayed his preference for primetime TV and Twitter rants over intelligence briefings and mature political discourse. However, Trump’s everyman urge to avoid his professional responsibilities and talk shit on the internet reached an (arguably) new low Friday morning. Trump woke up, bright and early, with a mission: to trash The New Celebrity Apprentice over disappointing early ratings. Beyond the ever-present disbelief over how our future president chooses to spend his free time, these tweets raise new concerns. For example, does Donald Trump know that as an executive producer of The New Celebrity Apprentice—a position he insisted on maintaining even after his recent promotion—he has a vested interest in the show’s success? Given this conflict of interest, it would follow that Trump would use his newfound platform to peddle the program, especially since it’s off to a rocky start. Instead, Trump bowed to his pettiest, most self-congratulatory interests, advertising the ratings decline as proof of his superior hosting abilities.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Donald J. Trump tweet without a superfluous personal attack. “Wow, the ratings are in and Arnold Schwarzenegger got ‘swamped’ (or destroyed) by comparison to the ratings machine, DJT,” wrote the future leader of the free world, in the third person. “So much for being a movie star—and that was season 1 compared to season 14. Now compare him to my season 1. But who cares, he supported Kasich & Hillary.”
It was an extremely pointed offensive, made all the more surprising by Trump’s previous support of the Schwarzenegger hire. Back in 2015, when NBC announced The Celebrity Apprentice’s new direction, Trump tweeted a “Congrats to my friend Arnold Schwarzenegger,” adding, “He’ll be great and raise lots of $ for charity.”
Schwarzenegger promptly reacted to Trump’s 2017 tweets, writing, “There’s nothing more important than the people’s work, @realDonaldTrump ... I wish you the best of luck and I hope you’ll work for ALL of the American people as aggressively as you worked for your ratings.” He proceeded to share a video of him reading part of Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address, which he first tweeted after the election, directly addressed to Trump: “Please study this quote from Lincoln’s inaugural, @realDonaldTrump. It inspired me every day I was Governor, and I hope it inspires you.” Beginning with a president-elect bashing a reality-TV show host, and ending with the Terminator reciting Lincoln’s inaugural address, January 6 will go down as another not-dull day on the internet.
So was Trump’s Twitter middle finger just stupid, or stupid like a fox? After all, while unprecedented, it’s safe to assume that a social-media feud between an incoming president and a governor-turned-TV-host will boost The New Celebrity Apprentice’s underwhelming ratings. This may very well be a PR stunt—and the kind of distraction that Trump has relied on heavily during his noticeably tumultuous transition. Whether or not it’s fake, this tweet was presumably written—and published—by our president-elect. If nothing else, it indicates that he really does self-identify as a “ratings machine.”
The Apprentice really did start off as a huge hit, no doubt due to its host’s name-recognition and oversize reputation. The show’s first season averaged about 21 million viewers, making it the breakout hit of the 2003-2004 U.S. television season. But from there on out, audience numbers steadily declined. By the third season, The Apprentice slipped to around 14 million viewers per episode. Initially, the plan was to sub Trump out as a host and cycle through different CEOs, like Mark Cuban and Richard Branson. Still, even after ratings started to fall, Trump clung to the spotlight. After a disappointing fifth and sixth season, The Apprentice was mysteriously absent from NBC’s 2007 fall schedule. When Trump released a subsequent statement that he was, “Moving on from The Apprentice to a major new TV venture,” many assumed that the series was six feet under. But then, like a singularly plumaged phoenix, Trump and his series rose from the ashes—with a twist. Cue the new-and-improved seventh season: The Celebrity Apprentice.
While the celebrity reboot injected new life into the franchise, it wasn’t quite the hit that Trump may have hoped, and never managed to reach the same heights as The Apprentice’s first few seasons. A Season 10 return to a plebeian cast marked a series low. During Season 14, Trump claimed that The Celebrity Apprentice was “the No. 1 show on television,” before downgrading his fib to insist that it was, at the very least, the highest-rated show on Monday nights (also false). In actuality, the series landed at a No. 67 spot in the TV rankings. While the Schwarzenegger-hosted The New Celebrity Apprentice did draw a significantly smaller number of viewers, one could argue that the franchise was already on its last legs. Additionally, the fact that Trump—the original host and executive producer of the series—couldn’t translate his election into a “Trump Bump” seems to undermine his status as a “ratings machine.”
At the end of the day, Donald Trump’s reality-TV chops are shaky at best. On one hand, there was the inarguable success of The Apprentice’s first few seasons. On the other, there’s The Celebrity Apprentice—which never rose higher than 46th in the overall TV rankings—and all of the horrible, failed shows that Trump attempted to push through production. With the means and desire to make it in reality TV, Trump became an industry hit the same way that he became a real-estate magnate: by showing up and failing repeatedly.
In 2007, for example, Trump proposed a never-made series called Lady or a Tramp. Our fearless leader promised to personally comb through nightclubs, searching for “rude and crude” strumpets in need of reality-TV reform. The show, an American take on a British series called Ladette to Lady, would air on MTV as a sort of palate-cleanser to the Simple Life era. “We are all sick and tired of the glamorization of these out-of-control young women, so I have taken it upon myself to do something about it,” Trump explained. “I am creating a real-life version of ‘My Fair Lady’ with my company Trump Productions. This show is all about getting a second chance and transforming for the better; the idea is genius and the show will be huge.” This from a man who has publicly admitted to watching Paris Hilton’s sex tape, despite the fact that he’s known her since she was 12.
While Lady or a Tramp never came to fruition, Trump executive-produced a different show that year: Pageant Place, a short-lived series about cohabiting beauty queens. In 2009, an iteration of Lady or a Tramp did debut, albeit with an even dumber twist. The Girls of Hedsor Hall shipped the aforementioned “out-of-control young women” to a British finishing school. According to MTV, “The Girls of Hedsor Hall—self-described ‘nymphomaniac’ Brianna, heavy drinker Samantha, bad-tempered Margie, high-school-dropout Jenna, gutter-mouthed Lillian, wild child Amanda, party girl Kim, snobby bitch Jen M, foul-mouthed Maddy, booty-baring punkette Hillary, bar-brawling Paola, and Jennifer, the self-proclaimed ‘Blackout Queen of North Carolina’—will have a chance to smooth their rough edges and reform the behavior that’s made them notorious.” It was a one-season flop.
In 2010, Trump took a shot at the reality-TV dating genre with his own, highly creative take: Donald J. Trump Presents: The Ultimate Merger. In the series, former Apprentice contestant/villain turned White House “public liaison” leader Omarosa Manigault considered “mergers” with 12 eligible bachelors. Trump himself personally facilitated these romantic mergers, hand-selecting the contestants. This merry band of bachelors lived tougher in a suite at the Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas. In yet another twist, six of the selected men were rich and six were poor—and only Trump knew who was who. Surprisingly enough, considering its premise, The Ultimate Merger aired for two seasons on TV One. In the second season, Omarosa was replaced with a former America’s Next Top Model and Celebrity Fit Club contestant.
Last but certainly not least is Trump Town Girls, a series that wanted to pit Trump beauty-pageant contestants against the seasoned brokers of Trump International Realty. Allegedly proposed as a star vehicle for Ivanka Trump, Trump Town Girls never aired due to concerns that the cast was too small and the content too boring. In the series, handpicked beauty-pageant contestants would be transported to Trump International, were they would compete for commissions and screen time. “One minute I have the crown on my head and then the next minute I’m in Mr. Trump’s office,” Amber Collins, Miss New York 2011, confesses to the camera in one salvaged scene. “He was like, ‘What are you doing now, Miss New York?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m teaching.’ He was like, ‘Listen, have you ever thought about real estate? You’ll make a hell of a lot more money than you will teaching.’”
Trump Town Girls asked the age-old question of whether or not a hot girl can also do a job. And according to the promo materials, the answer is maybe—apparently, in the real-estate business, hotness is both a weakness and an asset. “The male clients love them, but their wives and girlfriends are not their biggest fans. If they are in a negotiation with another broker, the broker assumes they’re dumb just because they’ve won a few beauty pageants… Then of course there is the jealousy of the long-term brokers, the older men and women who worked their way up in the ranks, who fought to get an interview with the Trumps, and the other gorgeous women at the firm who refuse to use their looks to their advantage and find flirting for the job to be appalling.” While we can’t honestly say that we would have enjoyed—or even watched—this atrocious-sounding production, the American public may have benefitted from more footage of Donald Trump interacting with his “gorgeous” employees.
Ultimately, Trump’s only successful reality-TV “idea” was a show where he bossed other people around in a boardroom—a fictionalization of his actual job description. But for all of his inconsistency, Trump has maintained an alarming fixation with TV ratings.
According to Jim Dowd, NBC’s former director of East Coast public relations, Trump was “obsessed”: “He’d usually start calling at 8 in the morning, but the ratings don’t come in until 10. I’d always have to tell him, ‘Mr. Trump, we have to wait until 10. As soon as they come in, I will call you.’”
Dowd recalled Trump’s inability to grasp The Apprentice’s ratings slump, explaining, “There’s about 10 people who cover ratings in terms of the publications that matter most. And he would want to make sure I called all those 10 people and told them, ‘No. 1 show on television, won its time slot,’ and I’m looking at the numbers and at that point, say Season 5, for example, we were No. 72. I can’t tell that to him. I can’t say that… he became kind of a monster when it came to these ratings.”
Clearly, old habits die hard.