'Apprentice' has made business sexy
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It took just two words, but once uttered by Donald Trump, NBC's "The Apprentice" cut through the bug-and-bachelor-riddled reality landscape to emerge as a fresh new ratings force in nonscripted programming in 2004.
Although overcoming fear wasn't a factor and neither was a big cash prize, the show would quickly manage to trump the competition, armed with that catchphrase and a bigger-than-life host with otherworldly hair. And 100 episodes later, it has done the unthinkable: It's made business sexy.
Creator Mark Burnett can recall the exact moment when he came up with the "Apprentice" concept. And when inspiration struck, he couldn't have been further from a New York office tower.
"I was in the Amazon jungle in Brazil working on the sixth cycle of (CBS') 'Survivor,'" he says. "I had done 18 seasons of outdoor, very remote programming. There were jaguars circling the survivors at night, one of my camera guys was bitten on the hand by a piranha, and an anaconda had just come through the Tribal Council. Then I looked down and saw millions of these ants devouring some carcass, and I thought, 'There must be a way to make a living in a normal city.'"
Yes, ants on a carcass did point the way to his next reality show success. Jumping from that idea, he thought of New York City and a job search. What about a three-month job interview? To Burnett, the boss would have to be big -- ideally a billionaire. Someone whose position seemed almost unattainable. And only one person came to mind.
"I knew Donald Trump because I'd leased the Trump Wollman Skating Rink in Central Park for the finale of 'Survivor 4,' and he told me he loved the show and would love to work with me sometime," Burnett says. "So I called Donald, saw him and pitched him the idea."
The Donald liked what he heard.
"Every network had been asking me to do a reality show for years, and I never wanted to do it," Trump explains. "But I liked Mark's idea because it was educational, it was business, it was a lot of things."
The deal sealed with Trump and Burnett would seem like a sure thing, but NBC wasn't yet sold. Trump was a name, but a niche one mostly familiar on the East Coast.
"It was a very risky show in the beginning," recalls Craig Plestis, NBC Entertainment's executive vp alternative programming, development and specials. "It was a bunch of people in suits running around a city to get a job with Donald Trump, who was an unknown entity on network television. No one knew at all if it would work."
They first had a hunch they were on to something when they screened a rough cut of the first boardroom sequence. Even without the music, the electricity was palpable.
"Watching that boardroom and the drama that was going on, it was unlike anything else on reality TV," Plestis says. "At that moment, we knew we had something special."
And it certainly connected with audiences. In its debut season early in 2004, "The Apprentice" earned a 13.0 rating, with an 18-49 audience of 13 million, according to the Nielsen Co. It was NBC's most-watched new series among adults 18-49 since the 1998-99 season.
More significant were the median income levels of those viewers. The show's numbers for adults 18-49 living in $100,000-plus-income households were high -- just shy of "The West Wing's" in its heyday.
"It's very unusual for a television show and particularly a reality show to have that kind of upscale audience profile," says NBC Universal TV Group chief marketing officer John Miller.
Aware of the appeal of those numbers to advertisers, Burnett decided to work sponsors into the show's competitions and prize giveaways. Estimates indicated that those sponsors would pay in the multimillions to have their products placed on the show, which ultimately found room for everything from Crest Vanilla Mint toothpaste to limited editions of GM's Pontiac Solstice.
Of course, the road to fired has hardly been without potholes. A spinoff in 2005, "The Apprentice: Martha Stewart" survived just one season; a relocation from New York to Los Angeles early last year failed to freshen up the franchise; and perhaps most damagingly, the network shifted the show in 2007 from Thursday to Sunday evenings, opposite ABC's "Desperate Housewives." Once there, "Apprentice's" slipped from a 6.3 rating/9 share to a 4.4 rating/7 share.
Fortunately, last year NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios co-chairman Ben Silverman made returning "The Apprentice" to its Thursday home one of his first priorities -- though by then many in the industry felt it would likely be the show's swan song. That it would be an all-celebrity edition seemed to be a last desperate grab for attention.
But suddenly, "Celebrity Apprentice" turned things around with a lineup including Gene Simmons, Stephen Baldwin and Nadia Comaneci, who collectively raised $1 million for their respective charities. The show inched up to a 5.3 rating/8 share.
Even the celebrities seemed happy with the results: "It was a great experience and one that I recommend to anyone who wants to get no sleep, eat on the run and work your ass off," contestant Marilu
Henner says of the grueling 22-day production schedule.
And judging from the number of celebs already lining up for the recently announced next celebrity edition (scheduled to begin airing January 2009), there's plenty of life left in the old boardroom.
"There's nothing vanilla or scripted about Donald Trump," Plestis says. "When I'm watching it in the control room, I'm still shocked by some of the decisions that he makes, and that's part of the beauty of the series. It's real reality."