Trump Redevelops His Own Series
By BILL CARTER The New York Times August 31, 2005
With all the attention surrounding the public rehabilitation of Martha Stewart and the new edition of "The Apprentice" she will star in for NBC starting Sept. 21, you might think that the star of that other edition of "The Apprentice" had turned into a shrinking violet, fallen off the radar screen, gone into hiding.
Donald Trump emerged this week from a bit of enforced quietude - to allow Ms. Stewart her hour on the stage - rested and ready to send out a loud Trump-et blast of a message, along the lines of: I'm still here. And by the way, I'm better than ever.
" 'The Apprentice' has been a great success by any standard," he said. "And 'Apprentice' 4 is the best by far, the best show we've done."
This pronouncement is consistent with NBC's positioning of the show this season. Kevin Reilly, the president of entertainment for NBC, described Mr. Trump's show, which begins a new season Sept. 22, as being "right back on its game."
Both NBC and Mr. Trump are eager to get that "back on its game" message out to counter any suspicions that "The Apprentice" is a fading phenomenon, an impression that took some root last spring (aided by NBC's competitors, of course) because the third edition of the business-based reality series had experienced a noticeable ratings falloff. The drop was hardly calamitous, though: "The Apprentice" was still in the top 15 for the season.
Mr. Trump noted ruefully that the series NBC broadcast in the hour preceding his 9 p.m. show - notably the "Friends" spinoff, "Joey" - had experienced a ratings meltdown that surely damaged his own numbers, a point that Mr. Reilly acknowledged even more ruefully was true.
Still, NBC's message does imply that Mr. Trump's show was off its game at least a bit in "Apprentice" 3, and Mr. Trump said he thought he knew why. "The entire series I was angry," he said Monday, sitting behind his desk on the 26th floor of Trump Tower. The anger, he said, related to the selection of the cast for that installment, which the show's creator, Mark Burnett, set up as a competition between those with and without college degrees.
Mr. Burnett said, in a telephone interview: "The casting problem on 3 was completely my fault. Having book smarts versus street smarts seemed like a great idea but it changed the tenor of the show." It affected the reaction among the show's usually wealthy and well-educated audience, he said, adding, "I don't think people wanted to see potty-mouthed competitors."
Mr. Trump said he felt that the show's casting directors had not taken his suggestions. Remembering an open call of candidates last fall, when thousands of applicants turned up to Trump Tower, Mr. Trump said he spied several promising entrants that day.
Mr. Trump said he pointed them out. "I was very nice. I said, 'You see that guy in dreadlocks? I would like him in the show if possible.' There was a girl I wanted. I said, 'I'd like to see if you could have her in the show.' It wasn't typical Trump."
Mr. Trump said that when he arrived to begin shooting the series he was given a cast rundown, and none of his choices had made it. "I went through the roof," he said. "Then I became the real Trump - because I didn't like the cast."
Many of the show's fans, in chat-room comments, seemed to agree. Mr. Trump said: "I recommended these people. If I recommend in my company, it's over. I don't have to be a dictator. I say this is a good idea and people do it, if they're intelligent."
Mr. Burnett acknowledged the need to find suitable candidates for Mr. Trump. But he said casting reality shows was always hard because even if you like someone at first glance they could be eliminated in background checks.
He and his star came up with a plan to rectify the situation. Mr. Trump flew to Los Angeles last spring to conduct personal auditions with the 200 or so finalists for the new season. Mr. Trump said: "It was a great interview process. They were fighting like cats and dogs."
The result, he said, is "a real Trump cast." Of the 18 contestants, 17 were his picks, he said. "If I'm looking for somebody out of 18 people to work for me, how come somebody else is picking the 18 people?" he asked. "Doesn't make sense."
The new group includes an ex-N.F.L. football player, a former professional softball player and a Rhodes scholar with five degrees. Ah, but Mr. Trump's deft touch will be apparent in other selections, too.
"We have an ex-stripper who is tough as nails," he said. And then there is Jennifer Murphy. Mr. Trump, who claims a certain expertise in the area, described her as "one of the most beautiful women I've ever seen."
He said some of the show's producers advised him against selecting her: "They said she was too beautiful. I said, 'Excuse me, there is no such thing as too beautiful.' They said, 'Donald she's so beautiful, she's not credible.' I said, 'No. 1, she happens to be smart. No. 2, she's very beautiful - congratulations, she's going on the show.' There wasn't going to be another 'Apprentice' 3 thing where I end up with a cast where I have to pick people to work for me and I don't believe in them."
Mr. Trump admitted it wouldn't be easy to consider firing a bona fide beauty queen. "I try to be objective," he said. "But beauty is an unfair advantage for certain people. When they came up with the wonderful statement, all men are created equal, never has there been a more false statement. It sounds brilliant; it reads beautifully. But some people are geniuses. Some are beautiful."
The new "Apprentice" will contain the usual complement of giant American companies looking for extra commercial exposure by supplying tasks for Mr. Trump's candidates. George Lucas will ask for ideas for the release of the DVD of his latest "Star Wars" film. Bill Gates will be involved, Mr. Trump said, with a new Microsoft product.
As much as Mr. Trump asserts the return to quality in his contestants on "The Apprentice," he acknowledged the challenge of bumping the ratings up again. First, there is the still problematic lead-in from "Joey" and the fading comedy "Will & Grace." Then there is the competition.
Once again "The Apprentice" will face off against television's most-watched drama, "CSI" on CBS. And ABC is hoping to put a dent in the opening episode with the results show from its "dance-off" special, featuring the two couples who drew big ratings in the summer reality series "Dancing With the Stars."
And there is one other new competitor of sorts as well: Martha Stewart. Mr. Trump is a co-owner of the Martha Stewart edition of "The Apprentice," so as he pointed out, he has every incentive for it to do well. Within reason, of course.
He did tell NBC he had reservations about the network's plan to schedule the Stewart show on Wednesday nights, just one night before his own.
"Both Donald and Mark Burnett expressed concern about having to go on back-to-back nights," Mr. Reilly said. "I think there will be a core audience that watches both, but I also think they'll attract different audiences." He said he was confident that Mr. Trump's show would endure - rather essential for NBC to survive on Thursday nights this season.
"It still feels like a show that can have a long run," Mr. Reilly said.