How TV maestro Trump took his reality show to Cleveland
Bluster and brutishness have long made a home on reality TV, including Donald Trump’s former showcase
Bluster and brutishness have long made a home on reality TV, including Donald Trump’s former showcase.
But since relinquishing his “Celebrity Apprentice” post in exchange for the presidential bid he launched in June 2015, Trump has played a major role in importing the ruckus of reality TV — and the bounty of headlines it generates — to the political arena. The race Trump dominates and the coverage he, more than anyone, amasses have seemed to take their cue from an episode of, well, “The Celebrity Apprentice.”
This week, he brought his all-too-real reality show to Cleveland for the Republication National Convention, where he was crowned as the party’s candidate for president.
But along the way, as with any reality show, what unfolded seemed a cavalcade of TV memes:
— A galaxy of distant stars (Scott Baio? Kimberlin Brown?) who, flickering at the podium, seemed borrowed from some reality show like, well, “Celebrity Apprentice.”
— A summer rerun of passages from a Michelle Obama speech by would-be first lady Melania Trump.
— The obligatory catfight when convention speaker Ted Cruz got booed for not endorsing Trump, just hours after Trump’s plane buzzed his speech at a rally.
— Trump echoing a riff from “Game of Thrones’” Prince Oberyn Martell when, during his acceptance speech, Trump unleashed dire warnings of a nation on the brink, then thundered, “I will be your champion!”
Since gliding from above on a Trump Tower escalator to announce his candidacy 13 months ago, Trump has drawn from the playbook of reality TV as he defied seemingly every rule of politics.
In return, he scored astonishing success with viewers — love him! hate him! — and, consequently, from TV outlets that embraced him as (his words) a “ratings bonanza.” (While the first three days of the Republican National Convention saw no Trump Bump in the ratings, Thursday’s audience for his acceptance speech was expected to spike.)
Trump, of course, is hardly the first candidate with show-biz sheen to enter politics. Those from the entertainment world who famously won office include Clint Eastwood, Sonny Bono, Jesse Ventura, Al Franken, Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger (soon to be Trump’s successor as “Apprentice” host).
But Trump is different. What Trump understands (and what his fellow candidates were forced to reckon with) is television’s appetite for raw sensation.
This applies in spades to the cable news networks. Year in and year out, 24/7, they scramble to fill their gaping schedules with viewer-pleasing content. For the past 13 months, they have feasted on the spectacle of Trump. Long before the GOP convention, thanks to Trump’s debate and other appearances on the campaign trail, his clamored-for interviews, and the hours of play-by-play analysis lavished on his candidacy by legions of correspondents and commentators, he has represented a fire hose of TV content.
No wonder Trump, with the slash-and-burn style he has made savvy use of, became the main event for the political coverage that has swallowed cable news and held the audience in thrall. If the political race is a hot TV property, Trump more than anyone deserves credit for closing that particular deal. And the networks, with his full participation, have made sure there’s no shortage of Trump.
While the Trump candidacy, even now, remains astonishing to some, his TV finesse should have never been in doubt.
“He had a media presence way before ‘The Apprentice,’” the show’s creator, Mark Burnett, told The Associated Press a few months ago. “If he wouldn’t have had that, I wouldn’t have cast him in the first place.”
Trump’s TV appeal was certainly no mystery to Jeff Zucker, who in 2003 was Entertainment president of a struggling NBC and snapped up the new project starring Trump and masterminded by Burnett, already red-hot from “Survivor.”
Now, as president of CNN Worldwide, Zucker, like his media rivals, is once again cashing in on Trump.
But even before “The Apprentice” premiered in January 2004, Trump was no stranger to TV. For instance, in the span of just 10 days in May 1997, he not only was seen on his “Miss Universe Pageant” telecast on CBS, but also made sitcom cameo appearances as himself on NBC’s “Suddenly Susan” and ABC’s “The Drew Carey Show.”
Already he was proving himself as TV incarnate — renowned for what he buys, sells, consumes and discards, and for how he promotes himself doing it. Clearly Trump was a television natural, since his story is the story TV tells around the clock: the saga of insatiable desires and acquisitions.
With his entry into politics, Trump has proved himself anew as must-see TV — a crossover artist who knew to intensify his message and harshen its delivery in service to a constituency only he seemed to detect.
Bent on the White House as his next acquisition, he has continued to dazzle with showmanship and fury as the “shake-things-up” star of this presidential reality show, which he, more than anyone, has defined (even giving his own genitals a public shout-out).
In a flash of self-effacement during a 2013 interview with the AP he said he came to “The Apprentice” unsure of its prospects. With show biz, he declared, “You NEVER know what’s gonna happen.”
Unless, of course, you do.
“I DO have an instinct,” he confided the next moment. “Oftentimes, I’ll see shows go on and I’ll say, ‘That show will never make it,’ and I’m always right. And I understand talent. Does anybody ask me? No. But if they did, I would be doing them a big service. I know what people want.”
In any case, lots of people wanted “The Apprentice.” In its first season, it averaged nearly 21 million viewers each week.
A dozen years later, this week marked the Trump brand’s hugest TV showcase yet.