NBCUniversal has a relationship with Donald Trump, the long-time performance artist and host of its NBC reality competition show The Apprentice, that’s strikingly similar to the one between the Donald and the Romney campaign McKay Coppins described in one of what will be one of many post-mortems of the campaign:
Among the savvy sophisticates who populated the campaign headquarters in Boston, Trump was viewed as a joke and a blowhard — an outrageous figure whose fixation on Obama’s birth certificate was, at once, bizarre and off-putting, according to campaign sources. But he was also popular among the very voters Romney was most concerned about winning over. And the candidate’s aides believed — perhaps naively — that if they could win his endorsement, they might be able to win the hearts of his many conservative fans. “He played very well with blue-collar-type Republicans, and the campaign saw that,” said one source in Trump’s camp. “If you have no education, and you work with your hands, you like him. It’s like, ‘Wow, if I was rich, that’s how I would live!’ The girls, the cars, the fancy suits. His ostentatiousness is appealing to them.”
For NBC, The Apprentice is a product similar to a Trump political endorsement. It’s relatively cheap to buy, in part because it’s heavily supported by product placement. It channels the things that make Trump irritating, his presumptions of expertise, his abrasiveness, and his showman’s flair, towards reasonably amusing targets. And in its Celebrity Apprentice iteration, the show pulls in stars with their own followings. For this, Trump got a $130 million contract from NBC last year. But NBC handed down that deal to Trump at the end of an awful year for the network. And now that the ratings landscape–and the political one–are very different, NBC should seriously consider if they want to stay in business with Trump, or if both he and The Apprentice have reached the end of their usefulness.
The Apprentice is probably near the end of its natural lifespan as a show anyway. Its celebrity editions are drawing fewer than 9 million viewers per episode, a figure that isn’t bad, but also isn’t strong enough to use to launch other new shows. And it pales in comparison to The Voice, which both has given NBC a platform to boost freshman success stories like Revolution and Go On, and provides an alternate revenue stream to the network in the form of music sales. As NBC solidifies its revitalized brand, and as non-musical competition shows increasingly show their age, the network should consider Trump and The Apprentice both in the context of the larger primetime environment and with an eye towards the special headaches Trump brings in his wake.
Trump may have helped bridge NBC’s image during the truly awful years it’s only now beginning to emerge from. But he’s hardly a team player–in fact, there are times when he seems as committed to trashing the network that signs his paycheck as in supporting it. The day after the Presidential election last week, Trump took a series of shots at NBC News’ Brian Williams, saying “.@bwilliams knows that I think his newscast has become totally boring so he took a shot at me last night,” continuing “Brian, I hope @NBCNightlyNews isn’t paying you too much–look at what’s happening to nightly news,” and finishing by saying “Brian Williams was never a smart guy but always passes himself off as such. People will learn the truth! @NBCNightlyNews…Brian, if I’m “well past the last exit to relevance” how come you spent so much time reading my tweets last night?” Williams has been part of the NBC corporate family since 1993, and the company’s presumably as interested in figuring out how to make programming involving him work as it is in the future of The Apprentice. The network’s revitalization is not so dependent on Trump, or even due to him at all, such that he ought to be allowed to slam his colleagues with impunity.
And the question of how they ought to be allowed to approach him creates a journalistic challenge for the NBC networks. Given Trump’s continued involvement in politics, particularly if Republican candidates intend to keep courting him without regard for his most outrageous statements, Trump’s provocations (some of which occur on sister network CNBC, where he appears as a commentator) are newsworthy. And NBC and MSNBC should be able to cover them straightforwardly without any question of whether Trump is owed any of the corporate deference he manifestly refuses to extend to his colleagues. There are, of course, firewalls between NBC’s news programming and its scripted and unscripted entertainment programming. But even if those stand firm, they can’t erase the visible contradictions and conflicts between a reality star and the news division of NBC.
It’s time for NBCUniversal to consider whether what Trump brings to NBC prime time is worth the embarrassment and irritation he causes elsewhere. And even if it wants to keep The Apprentice alive in some form, the company might do well to take a lesson from The Voice, which NBC is refreshing by substituting new judges for its spring cycle. Change is good. And NBC should remember that right now, they need Donald Trump’s ratings less than he needs the credibility NBC offers him.