Is Trump over?
The Apprentice was a brilliant career move for Donald Trump, setting off a virtuous cycle of egomaniacal profiteering. The TV show brought free advertisements for his Atlantic City casino, promotions for his apartment projects in New York and Chicago, endorsements, and book deals. That moneymaking publicity, in turn, fueled the TV show.
But now, after a glorious year for The Donald, this cycle is turning vicious. Ratings have fallen, and Trump has engaged in increasingly strange publicity stunts that don't bring him any income at all and that may end up costing him money. It turns out that Trump's desperation is almost as compelling as his success.
In its first season, which ran from January through April 2004, TheApprentice was a runaway—and surprise—hit for NBC and Trump. The finale attracted a massive audience: an average of 28 million viewers. Trump moved to exploit the success and build buzz for the next season, churning out books like Stephen King. The spring of 2004 brought Trump: How To Get Richand Trump: The Way to the Top: The Best Business Advice I Ever Received. The same month, Trump began to appear in advertisements for Visa. His assistant, Carolyn Kepcher, rushed to get Carolyn 101 into print for the fall of 2004, and it did well.
Despite all the buzz and collateral promotion, viewership dropped sharply in the second season. The September 2004 debut drew 14 million viewers. The finale, an excruciating three-hour extravaganza, drew fewer than 17 million viewers.
Trump clearly felt pressure to do something drastic to attract attention for the third season. But he didn't have a best-selling book to plug or a new endorsement gig. So Trump decided to do the promotional work himself. He married his longtime companion, Slovenian supermodel Melania Knauss. And apparently, the only weekend Mar-a-Lago was available for the nuptials was in late January 2005, just when Apprentice 3was about to start.
The Apprentice's third season was marketed as "street smarts vs. book smarts," but the conceit failed to capture viewers' imaginations. Ratings fell again. And so as plans were laid to expand the franchise to include a Martha Stewart spinoff this fall, Trump careened from moneymaking endorsements and book deals to cheap publicity stunts.
On May 12—the same day Episode 16 aired—Trump appeared on MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews (synergy, baby!) and slammed the design of the Freedom Tower proposed for the World Trade Center site. The following week, Trump engineered a classic example of what historian Daniel Boorstin labeled a pseudo-event. On May 18, Trump held a press conference at which he announced he could rebuild the Twin Towers—even though he doesn't control the site and couldn't hope to raise the funds to rebuild there. This time, the non-NBC media world played along. (In the New York Times, Jennifer Steinhauer sneaked a fine bit of sarcasm past her editors: "It was clearly a coincidence that Mr. Trump held his news conference a day before the season finale of his network reality show, The Apprentice.") The same week, Trump also succumbed to the ultimate in celebrity abasement—talking about your relationship on Larry King Live, which he and Melania did on May 17. All to no avail. The finale of Season Three attracted just 13.7 million viewers, as realityblurred.com notes. It got trounced by CSI.
While the TV franchise is listing, the collateral products are tanking. When King asked Trump how his new book of golf tips is doing, Trump responded: "It's selling like hot cakes." Yeah, like hot cakes at a convention of people suffering from celiac disease. The only thing in the six figures about Trump: The Best Golf Advice I Ever Received is its Amazon.com ranking.
So what does Trump have planned for this fall? Well, he's already starting an online university, which will offer neither degrees nor grades. And we can probably expect more desperate publicity stunts—perhaps a crisis in the marriage, to be discussed at length on Dateline. Or maybe he'll show up in Baghdad to critique the reconstruction of Iraq and offer his own expertise, an event sure to be covered by the Today Show.
And as Playbill notes, Trump, TV producer Mark Burnett, and Broadway producers Barry and Fran Weissler plan to turn The Apprentice into a musical for the spring of 2006. (That sound you hear is New York Times critic Ben Brantley sharpening his talons.) This strikes me as the most desperate move of all. Broadway is a notorious cesspool for outsiders' capital. Besides, the Great White Way already has a long-running smash hit that's a tribute to Trump: Hairspray.