The Donald Trumps TV

Jul 11, 2005  •  Post A Comment

When Emmy nominations are announced Thursday, Donald Trump believes NBC’s “The Apprentice” should be on the list, even though he didn’t think the most recent version was as good as the show’s first season. “The Emmy should have gone to ‘The Apprentice’ last year,” Mr. Trump said during an interview in his Fifth Avenue office in New York last week. “This year we should be nominated because it’s one of the best reality shows, if not the best reality show.”

Mr. Trump is a born salesman and a relentless self-promoter, so it isn’t surprising he thinks his series deserves recognition. What is a surprise is how candid he is in his criticism of the third cycle of the series. That is the reason he got personally involved in casting the fourth season, which begins in September.

“I didn’t like certain representatives on the cast on No. 3,” Mr. Trump said. “I’m the biggest [real estate] developer in New York and I don’t have a lot of time to be thinking about casts. Right? But I wasn’t happy with the cast on No. 3. So I called up [fellow executive producer] Mark [Burnett] and I said, ‘Mark, I want to get involved in picking the cast for No. 4’ … and he said, ‘Fine.'”

More than 1 million candidates applied for cycle four and 2,000 came to Los Angeles, where Mr. Trump played a key role in selecting contestants. “I picked 18 people that are phenomenal, absolutely phenomenal,” said Mr. Trump. “They’re sharper. They’re smarter. There’s incredible brain power. A couple of the women are among the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen, which is to me important. … A couple are world-class beauties. Not all of them. Because you don’t want them all to be. You want character as well.”

That might as well be a description of Mr. Trump: character and the look. Along with his drive and willingness to take a hands-on approach to every aspect of his business, they are the signature qualities that have made Mr. Trump that rare business person who is also a pop celebrity. What makes him stand out is that his fame-as a real estate mogul, best-selling author, TV personality and producer of the Miss Universe pageant and other shows-has also made him a commercial brand, right up there with Coca-Cola and McDonald’s. Other celebrities, such as Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise, are brands, but few are also real business people. The short list includes Oprah Winfrey and Mr. Trump’s newest partner, Martha Stewart.

Spinning off a version of “The Apprentice” starring Ms. Stewart is a risk for Mr. Trump and the show. Will it dilute the franchise? Will the public accept Ms. Stewart, fresh from her legal problems? Can she match Mr. Trump’s powerful persona?

“I happen to think Martha will be very successful,” Mr. Trump said. “I hope she’s very successful because of the fact this was Mark Burnett’s and my creation, ‘The Apprentice.’ There were other options. She could have just done her own show.”

There is no guarantee of success. Mr. Trump noted that none of the copy-cat business-oriented prime-time reality shows has been as successful. Why? They don’t star Mr. Trump.

“Whether it’s the look, the mind, this or that, I’ve always gotten great ratings [for TV appearances],” Mr. Trump said. “Who knows what it is? It’s a lot of different things. I mean, I could have told Tommy Hilfiger, ‘Don’t do it.’ He doesn’t have the look. … To me he doesn’t have the goods. I would have said to Mark Cuban, ‘Don’t do it.’ He doesn’t have the goods. I never thought [British billionaire Richard] Branson had the goods.”

He believes Ms. Stewart does have “the goods,” and that her time in prison will actually work for her: “I think it made her more interesting. It showed she’s able to handle tremendous adversity. In a certain way, she’s hotter now than she was before.”

While Ms. Stewart won’t use Mr. Trump’s trademark phrase “You’re fired,” her version of “The Apprentice,” like Mr. Trump’s, will feature product placements. Some critics suggest these plugs are a reason ratings dropped last season.

Mr. Trump doesn’t agree. He blames the ratings in part on the fact the lead-in the first season was the highly rated “Friends,” while it is now “Joey” and “Will & Grace.” “I didn’t even know what a lead-in was two years ago,” Mr. Trump said. “They say it is virtually impossible to double a lead-in, but we do much better than that. It’s really amazing … these two shows get killed. They get 4 million [viewers]. Then I go to 16 million people. That’s unheard of, a jump like that.”

Mr. Trump is now a student of the TV business. He believes that his not being part of the TV “establishment” hurts the show’s chances of winning an Emmy. He is especially proud that “The Apprentice” is among the top shows in the key 18 to 49 demo desired by advertisers. He also thinks his show will do well in the future, as commercial skipping increases. “It’s the only show in television that really works for product placement because it’s based around product placement,” he said.

Selling is what Mr. Trump does best. His fame and his reputation for delivering quality have allowed him to sell real estate for a higher per-square-foot rate than others. He has pocketed millions as a commercial pitchman for everything from the Visa card to McDonald’s without diluting his brand. His sometimes turbulent personal life has played out in public without seriously tainting his image. He aggressively manipulates the press, doing his own public relations and often making calls directly to reporters and editors, especially when he doesn’t like an article.

In many ways, this is the era of Trump. His shows are hits; his privately held business, with an estimated $10.4 billion in revenue last year (according to Crain’s New York Business), is riding a historic real estate boom. He lives like royalty. Even the recent bankruptcy of Trump casinos hasn’t tarnished him. However, he knows that the cycle will inevitably turn the other way at some point.

Mr. Trump recalled a conversation he had last year with producer Lorne Michaels the week he was hosting “Saturday Night Live.” “I said, ‘You know, Lorne, it won’t always be like this. Someday the [“Apprentice”] ratings won’t be good and NBC will call me and they’ll say, “Donald, we’re going to cancel the show.”‘ And he said, ‘No, you’re wrong about one thing, Donald. They won’t even call.’ I thought that was great.”