Political prognosticators may be struggling to decide if Donald Trump’s bid for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination is serious, but many close observers of Trump think the campaign is a ratings stunt. The New York Times noted recently, “Trump has a history of simultaneously talking up his presidential ambitions while promoting various Trump-branded goods.” An anonymous executive from the NBC, the network where Trump has made his television home with his successful franchise, The Apprentice, since 2004, said as much to Entertainment Weekly yesterday:
We at the network have no idea whether Trump is serious about [running for president] or not. He won’t tell even us — and we haven’t pushed because we’ve just decided it is whatever it is. If he wants to spout off about things, we’re happy to let him. But our inclination is that he’s not serious about running for president. We think it’s a stunt.
However encouraging NBC may be in public about The Apprentice‘s ratings, the show certainly needs the ratings bump that Trump’s sudden surge in visibility has provided. The show’s ratings are down dramatically from the 20.7 million viewers per episode that The Apprentice pulled in its first season. The show’s numbers have ticked upwards when Trump has celebrities instead of ordinary people competing for a job with him (as they are right now, with 8.8 million people tuning in per episode). Industry insiders have concluded that the original version of the show, featuring those ordinary people, is likely finished after this season, and as the ratings trends show, even the celebrity editions aren’t enough to return the show to its former highs:
With that decline in ratings has come a corresponding decline in revenue. When the show debuted in 2004, NBC was asking $409,877 for a 30-second ad slot during it. Now, that number is down to $99,074. While The Apprentice costs NBC very little to produce, it’s still a precipitous decline in revenue. Trump is far from fired, but he hasn’t inked a new contract with NBC yet, and it’s certainly in his best interests to prove he can bump ratings before doing so.
That’s why Trump’s presidential bid is the perfect ploy for him. For all Trump’s spectacular delays of ego, The Apprentice is his one incontestable business success in recent years. The downturn in the real estate market embroiled him in a nasty dispute with financers over a Chicago apartment building, and his casino business filed for bankruptcy for the third time in 2009. His nascent presidential campaign both draws attention to The Apprentice (Trump plans to make some sort of announcement about the race on the May 22 finale), and gives Trump an opportunity to promote the leadership credentials that make him an uber-boss on the show.
And the campaign gives him an escape hatch, too. If The Apprentice is doomed to a downward ratings glide, a reasonably serious flirtation with a presidential run gives Trump the opportunity to jump to another industry. No matter how cynical his rightward shift — he only registered as a Republican voter in 2009, and there’s no clear precipitating event motivating his political conversion — a stint as a Republican frontrunner is probably enough to guarantee Trump some place in the right-wing media firmament. No matter how questionable Trump’s business acumen, he doesn’t really need a paycheck. He just wants a platform, and this campaign, however frivolous, guarantees him one now and for the foreseeable future.
ThinkProgress Exclusive: It says a lot about how colorful Trump is that the coverage of his fledgling campaign hasn’t mentioned his two colorful ex-wives. Ivana Trump’s press rep told us that Ms. Trump doesn’t normally comment on her former husband, from whom she was divorced in 1992, but in this case, she wants us to know that “I definitely will support The Donald. He is smart, a great businessman, great speaker and motivator, and our country needs strong leadership. I believe our country should be seen as a serious business!”