I have watched reality TV shows, even a few episodes of The Apprentice, particularly the season of Celebrity Apprentice when poker pro Annie Duke and comedienne Joan Rivers were contestants.
The thing about reality shows is that they are relatively cheap to produce, and they give off the aura that they are a slice into the behavior of
- pretty people under stress (The Bachelorette/Bachelor franchise, Real Housewives of... franchise, etc.); or
- skilled and unskilled people under stress (Top Chef, Master Chef, Flip or Flop, Project Runway, Survivor, Amazing Race, Project Greenlight, Shark Tank); or
- celebrities under stress (Dancing with the Stars, American Idol, The Voice, America's Got Talent)
It is cheap entertainment, and a good bit of it is contrived. As we know from the "insiders" perspective provided by Lifetime's po-mo dramedy UnREAL, behind the scenes of these reality confections are writers and talent agents, associate producers and cameramen, dramatic themes and romantic complications, heroes and villains. For every audience, there is something to gawk at. For every character that horrifies one segment of the audience, there is another character (or the very same individual) who gladdens some other segment.
The most successful of these shows have a social media component. In a vertically integrated media market, any show that can generate Facebook likes and Twitter hashtags - what the industry calls "talk back" - is a show that is running on all media cylinders.
Let's not pretend any longer - Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump is the central character of a reality television series called Election 2016.
This is the first reality show/social media election in the history of the American republic. In terms of media novelty, it is as revolutionary as the 1960 campaign, the first to broadcast a nationally televised presidential election debate. One candidate - the one who went on to just barely win - was a master of the imagery of television; the other - the ultimate loser - was a sweating, nervous mess. The then-loser Richard Nixon would never make the same mistake. When 20 year later a Hollywood actor-turned-politician ran for President, the die was cast for an easy media-induced victory.
Which brings us to 2016. The reality series we have been witness to these past 18 months is based on two prior series in which Trump also served as the central character.
The first tryout was The Apprentice. Lest you forget, in 2004 reality TV producer Mark Burnett (whose Survivor was the breakout summer hit of 2000, and has since given us Shark Tank, The Amazing Race, and many others) approached a skeptical Trump with an idea for a reality show, a kind of ultimate job interview. Ignoring his agent, Trump tried out the format, and within a half hour of taping he realized that even if the show was a flop, he could tap into a wider audience to promote his brand - in other words, free unfiltered advertising.
The Apprentice premiered in January 2004. It placed in the top-10 that first season. 28 million viewers watched the first season finale. GE was then finishing an acquisition offer from French-owned Universal, spinning off NBC to become NBCUniversal in May, 2004. Throughout The Apprentice's run, that conglomerate was about to be acquired by an even bigger media giant. Thus by 2013 NBCUniversal had become a wholly owned subsidiary of Comcast. (Remember all those snarky corporate jokes about GE and Kabletown in 30 Rock?)
The Apprentice ran for 4 seasons over 2-1/2 years on Thursday nights at 9 pm. It was moved to Monday, and then to Sunday. It never achieved the success of that first season, but it was cheap to make, had good ratings, and was profitable. Burnett even peddled a spin-off called The Apprentice: Martha Stewart to NBC for the 2005 season. Trump was one of its executive producers.
The Apprentice: Martha Stewart was not renewed.
By the sixth season, which ended in 2007, The Apprentice was in 75th place for the season, and only 10.6 million viewers watched the finale.
It was during the break between the last season of The Apprentice and the cynical re-tool known as Celebrity Apprentice that Trump had his second tryout for the character he is now playing. This was Trump's one and only miniseries.
Amongst the holdings of NBCUniversal are a number of cable outlets: Bravo, MSNBC, Syfy, E!, NBCSN, and USA Network - to name a few of the 30. On USA Network, Vince McMahon's weekly wrestling program was a profitable two hours of cheap scripted drama every Monday night from its inception in 1993.
Sometimes things work; sometimes they don't. GE and McMahon's WWF (now WWE) each lost $35 million on the failed one-season pro football league, the XFL. But NBC Universal and the WWE continued with a more lucrative connection - broadcast rights to Raw and its secondary series Smackdown. For a time McMahon moved his shows to a non-NBC Universal outlet, but by 2005 all of WWE's weekly offerings were on USA Network.
In pro wrestling, the big money is in pay per view. And nothing is bigger than the annual scripted drama known as Wrestlemania. As in any year, the lead-up to Wrestlemania XXIII, held in Ford Field in Detroit on April 1, 2007, was made up of dramatic narratives presented in episodic form on the USA Network. One of the narratives was entitled "Battle of the Billionaires" in which two wrestlers would settle a manly bet made in a moment of contrived drama between two billionaires weeks before.
McMahon's dramatic back-story as gargantuan owner of the WWE was perfect for the role of Billionaire A (a despised character, a scrapper, a braggart).Trump played the tough-guy outsider role of Billionaire B (an arrogant character; also a braggart; with cosmopolitan, New York airs). On April Fool's day 2007 the story came to its conclusion. I report this as a matter of fact: Trump clotheslined McMahon outside the ring. At the conclusion of the match, which "ended" inconclusively, Billionaire Trump shaved off the hair of Billionaire McMahon - that was the bet. Then, as a kind of "shocking" coda to the narrative, wrestler "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, playing the part of the common man rebelling against the preening Billionaires, delivered a patented finishing move (the "Stunner") on Billionaire Trump. The sequence ended with Trump prone in the middle of the ring. Cut to arena rock, time for the next drama.
Thus ended the one-season miniseries "Battle of the Billionaires." Celebrity Apprentice or The Apprentice would continue for another 7 seasons. As Trump has said repeatedly, NBC wanted him back after the 2014 season ended, offering a commitment for two further years. But by then Trump was preparing for another show.
Meanwhile, McMahon spent together with his wife Linda a reported $50 million on two failed bids to put Linda in the US Senate from the state of Connecticut, once in 2010 and again in 2012. The first two attempts at WWE-ing a political campaign failed. But what if Billionaire B were to give it a try?
I repeat, the central character of our collective reality series known as the 2016 elections is Donald J. Trump. He causes angst on the Upper West Side and amongst Buckleyan Republicans; he evokes cheers from suburbia and fly-over country. He's more the swaggering tough guy of "Battle of the Billionaires," but he's got the decisive demeanor of the boardroom. He's also got social media by the throat.
Ratings come and ratings go. Writers rarely have enough fresh ideas for more than a season or two. It is the melancholy nature of television that a hit show will eventually lose steam.
But until that day, all vertically integrated media is good media. It's free. It's cheap. You just have to be comfortable in front of the camera. Same advice for a TV contestant - Be yourself.
Love you or hate you, they'll blog about you or tweet about you, and your name - on licensed properties around the world - shall go down in history. Maybe you'll be President.
Trump, in other words, is killing it.
Note: The reality show analysis continues here