Donald Trump, remade by reality TV

The mogul knew ‘The Apprentice’ would boost his brand — but it did much more than that for the GOP front-runner

by Marc Fisher (, January 27, 2016)

Before Donald Trump made great reality TV, before his campaign to make American reality great, he never watched any of the shows. He didn’t like the whole idea of reality TV. “That’s for the bottom feeders of society,” Trump told friends. Then, in 2002, “Survivor” creator Mark Burnett came to see him at Trump Tower.trump_walk_of_fameBurnett, a former T-shirt salesman on Venice Beach, had achieved stratospheric ratings with a show based in exotic spots such as the Australian outback and the Polynesian islands. But he had little kids at home, and he was desperate to do a show in a U.S. city. Burnett’s road home, he realized, was through Trump. “The Apprentice” would star Trump as judge, jury and executioner in a weekly winnowing of young go-getters vying to run one of his businesses. Trump’s agent told him it was a terrible idea — business shows never work on TV, he said. Trump disagreed. Indeed, he fired the agent shortly thereafter. “If I would have listened to him,” Trump told The Washington Post, “I wouldn’t have done the show.” Not halfway into that first, hour-long meeting with Burnett, Trump made up his mind. He sensed that “The Apprentice” had enormous potential to introduce him to a broader audience, and especially to younger people. “My jet’s going to be in every episode,” he told Jim Dowd, then NBC’s publicity director and now head of a PR firm, Dowd Ink. “Even if it doesn’t get ratings, it’s still going to be great for my brand.” Burnett walked out of the meeting with a handshake deal. Trump secured not only a starring role on a show made by TV’s hottest producer but also a 50 percent ownership stake in “The Apprentice.” The man who now seeks to be commander in chief had consulted no one, done no research. He liked the idea. He bought it. It was a classic Trump moment, an example of the gut-instinct decision-making that he proudly touts in nearly every campaign speech. Buy a show. Build a wall. Pull out of a debate. Make America great again. “It’s very easy,” Trump promises. What was harder was the decision to run for president, which Trump had talked about for decades. He didn’t run for president because of “The Apprentice,” but according to the show’s executives and producers, without “The Apprentice” there would be no candidacy.

‘We want more Trump’

The light-bulb moment for the show that would change Trump’s trajectory came in 2002, when Burnett was filming the finale for “Survivor: Marquesas” — in New York’s Central Park at the Wollman ice rink. Trump operates the skating facility, having famously renovated it in a jiffy and under budget after the city government spent six years and $12 million failing to fix it. Burnett, fed up with being stuck in the jungle “with crocodiles and ants and everything that could kill you,” decided his next show had to be set in a different kind of jungle, made of asphalt. “What I needed was someone larger than life, very colorful,” he said, a character who would be likable, tough and fascinating enough to interest an audience through a whole season. Wollman Rink offered an idea: “TRUMP,” plastered on the walls and the Zamboni. Burnett took the hint. But even with Trump on board, “The Apprentice” needed a time slot on a network. Fox passed on the idea, concluding that it was too elitist — Trump didn’t seem like a TV star, and the contestants were too highbrow, products of fancy educations, and wouldn’t connect to average American viewers. ABC had once tried to recruit Trump for a reality show in which cameras would follow him around as he made deals with politicians and contractors. Trump hated the idea; it was too much of an intrusion into his business. Now, ABC executives liked the pitch for “The Apprentice,” but negotiations bogged down over price. CBS wanted the show, too, but Trump was angry at the network for declining to pick up the option on the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants, which he owned until last year. NBC hungered after the show, even before Burnett and Trump came to visit. “The networks were more interested in Mark Burnett’s track record, not Donald’s,” said Jeff Gaspin, then the network’s chief of reality shows. “Trump was just another iconic businessman, like Richard Branson or Mark Cuban.” But Jeff Zucker, then president of NBC Entertainment, and Gaspin were both longtime New Yorkers who had seen firsthand how the city’s tabloid newspapers dined out on Trump’s showmanship. They knew there was more to Trump than people outside the New York area might have seen. They were right. “Apprentice” was an instant hit when it debuted in 2004, quickly amassing an audience of more than 20 million viewers. The plan NBC bought envisioned Trump as host for only one year. The idea was for a different mogul to star each season, with Branson, Cuban and Martha Stewart following Trump. That notion fell by the wayside during the taping of the first episode. The script called for the host to play a modest role in each installment, introducing the challenge that contestants faced, then returning for a brief boardroom scene at the end to decide who had performed poorly and would not be coming back. In the boardroom NBC built for him inside Trump Tower, Trump took to his role instantly. The taping went on for nearly three hours, and “it was only when we saw rough cuts of the boardroom scenes that we realized they were gold,” Gaspin said. “After the first episode, we said we want more Trump.” What would become the show’s catchphrase, “You’re fired,” was not scripted, Trump and the producers agree. When Trump — who takes pride in having improvised his lines on “The Apprentice,” just as he says he doesn’t prepare for presidential debates — blurted out the words, the crew in the room instantly knew this would be the show’s signature phrase. But although “You’re fired” became a symbol of Trump’s blunt toughness, a look back at the show’s first season reveals something different: pauses and a softening of the voice just before he sacks a contestant, and frequent consultations with his staff, whose views he sometimes adopted even when he disagreed. What the audience saw on TV altered their perception of the mogul they had known as an immodest dealmaker who built glitzy towers, married beautiful women and slapped his name on jets and yachts. “The Apprentice” turned Trump from an easily caricatured Richie Rich who had just weathered some difficult years into a pop-culture truth-teller, an evangelist for the American gospel of success, a decider who insisted on standards in a country that had somehow slipped into handing out trophies just for showing up. “Donald was about honesty. He was tough but truthful,” said Gaspin, who went on to be chairman of NBC Universal Television Entertainment. “He wasn’t saying you were good at your job when you weren’t.” Before Trump, the rule book for reality shows said that “TV should be positive and inspiring,” Gaspin said. “Then personalities like Simon Cowell and Donald Trump came along and figured out how to be inspiring, negative and very honest all at once.” Trump had been a household name for a generation, but his reputation was shaped by a blizzard of newspaper stories, magazine covers and TV reports. “Apprentice” let Americans see him in a way they perceived as unmediated. On TV and on the campaign trail, “people want to hear the unvarnished,” Burnett said. “Without a TV show, you are just the editor’s headlines, the journalist’s take. On TV, you feel you get to know the person. That same style that he showed on ‘The Apprentice’ seems to be what’s working for him now — the ability to speak his mind clearly and not tone down his voice in a politically correct, TV way. It’s the kind of brand recognition that would certainly enhance your political career.” Those who knew him pre-“Apprentice” saw a character emerging on the show who was basically the same as he was off-camera, a man who loved power and success but who also won people over by being frank and listening well. “He was nervous about the ratings,” Dowd said. “He kept asking, ‘Is this going to work?’ He was tempering himself and didn’t want to come across as a villain.” Gaspin saw an evolution in Trump as the show gained audience. “Donald became more involved as the series went on,” he said. “It’s actually not that different from what you’re seeing now. He didn’t necessarily take it seriously at first, but when he gets traction, he puts everything into it. . . . He just loved, loved being a TV star.” Trump scoffs at any effort to psychoanalyze his performance. He says he did the show in good part because “it’s lucrative, even if you’re rich. It’s an amazing thing — you never get tired of that.” (Trump made $100,000 per episode for his performance; of course, he also owned half of the show.) But in his most recent book, Trump writes that he did “The Apprentice” “not for the money, mind you, but because it creates such a powerful brand presence and is a lot of fun to do.” Whatever his motivation, Trump grants that “The Apprentice” allowed Americans to see a more nuanced version of him. “I do have great feelings for people,” Trump told The Post. “But I became more popular by being on a show where I fire people. It’s weird. I am an honest person. Michael Douglas said I’m the best actor on television. I said: ‘I’m not acting. This is who I am.’ ”

‘Need for public validation’

The show’s instant success had a powerful impact on its star. “The Donald Trump I saw the day before ‘The Apprentice’ premiered was very different from the guy I walked to nine national interviews the first day after the show aired,” Dowd said. “People on the street embraced him. He was mobbed. All of a sudden, there was none of the old mocking, the old New York Post image of him with the wives and the parties. He was a hero, and he had not been one before. He told me, ‘I’ve got the name recognition, but I don’t have the love and respect of Middle America.’ Now he did. That was the bridge to the current campaign.” Suddenly, Trump was in demand as never before. Dowd booked Trump on Don Imus’s morning radio gabfest every week for a year and a half. The appearances, initially meant to promote the TV show, almost immediately veered to talk of politics. Trump had made noises about running for president in 1988, as a Republican, and again in 1999, when Ross Perot’s Reform Party was still barely extant. But “The Apprentice” made his political aspirations more plausible, he acknowledges. Trump is quick to note how well-known he was before “The Apprentice” — unprompted, he reels off his ratings on other TV shows, the magazines covers he’s graced, the best-selling books he’s written — but he says the reality show “was a different level of adulation, or respect, or celebrity. That really went to a different level. I’m running to really make America great again, but the celebrity helped — that’s true.” Trump initially saw the show as a brand extension, and with the success of “The Apprentice” came Trump ties, suits, a fragrance (Success by Trump), lamps, even Trump bottled water. “Donald calculates the brand awareness,” said Burnett, now president of MGM Television Group. “He’s a showman.” The show’s producers didn’t think Trump would really run, but they recall him drawing a direct line from the show’s success to the possibility that he would shoot for the nation’s top job. “Donald mentioned a number of times, ‘Maybe I’ll run for president one day,’ ” Burnett recalled. “And sad to say, politics is kind of a TV show.” (Asked whether he supports Trump for president, Burnett said only: “I have no idea about the politics. I have had great fun — great fun — watching it.”) As “Apprentice” has been franchised to other countries, its hosts are increasingly “people with political aspirations,” Burnett said. “Nobody is missing this.”

‘He’s fueled by it’

Before “The Apprentice,” Trump often scoffed at the idea that he would run for public office. He also often said he was considering doing just that. “I just want to build,” he wrote in 1997. “That’s what I do best.” Reports that he wanted to be president were “unfounded rumor,” he said then. “I’m too honest, and perhaps too controversial, to be a politician. . . . Honesty causes controversy, and therefore, despite all the polls that say I should run, I would probably not be a very successful politician.” But “The Apprentice” both built and fed Trump’s hunger for public recognition, his associates say. “There’s some sort of huge need for public validation,” Gaspin said. “He would call me every day: ‘How are the ratings?’ He’s fueled by it.” “The show was magic, and that’s what he’s trying to recapture,” said Dowd, a Democrat who backs Trump for president. As the show’s numbers soared, Trump decided to extend his TV brand with a dramatic series based on him. Called “The Tower,” it was supposed to be the “West Wing” of real estate development, with a main character who aspires to excellence, craves winning and wants to build the world’s tallest building. Gay Walch, who was hired to write the pilot, created a larger-than-life character with a complicated family, including adult children and an ex-wife who all worked for him. She borrowed scenes from Trump’s books, including this clever ruse: When Trump’s investors wanted to see a construction project that they had funded but which they suspected hadn’t begun, he staged a pile of dirt and a crew to make it look as if something was happening. When Walch met with Trump about “The Tower,” he didn’t object to her writing, not even when the Trump-like character was less than wholly scrupulous. “He was very respectful of my creative process,” she said. “It wasn’t like things had to be his way. He was a confident listener, acutely listening.” Trump gave the writer only one note: He wanted the main character’s last name to be Barron. No problem, Walch said — “The Tower” would be the story of John Barron. Two years later, long after “The Tower” was scrapped — it just wasn’t a compelling story line, network executives said — Trump and his third wife, Melania, named their son Barron. Now, as he heads into the first primaries atop the pack seeking the Republican nomination for president, Trump would still like to make “The Tower.” “Numerous networks want to do it,” he said. “Depending on what happens with this thing, I’d like to do that. Of course, if this goes all the way, I can’t do it. I won’t have the time.” Trump said he had to get off the phone, “because I’m going to make a speech in front of many, many thousands of people. [Bernie] Sanders gets a lot of people, but nothing like this.” Before he goes, Trump has a question. Former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger will be the next star of “The Apprentice.” “You think he’ll be good? I hope he’s good. He was in politics. So maybe he can do this, too.”