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In 2011, Donald Trump was toying with running for president and NBCUniversal was unhappy about it.
By then, The Apprentice had been succeeded by Celebrity Apprentice, and while the show wasn’t doing especially well, neither was NBC. The network felt it needed to keep the show around with its original star. The task of convincing him to stay ultimately fell to Steve Burke, then CEO of network parent NBCUniversal, who according to sources made a deal that went beyond whatever compensation Trump and producer Mark Burnett had wrung from the company: NBCU also had to make a contribution to the Trump Foundation. The company coughed up $500,000, according to multiple sources.
It wasn’t the first time Trump had demanded a little extra to do his job: NBC had gotten off the hook for a $10,000 donation to the same organization in 2007 to get him to show up for the network’s upfronts presentation, according to a former top exec. “It just shows his serial bad behavior,” says a former top executive with knowledge of the situation. ” ‘I may be your employee and I’m supposed to go [to the upfront presentation], but I’m going to leverage you.’ ” Some insiders assumed he pocketed the money and indeed, the charity turned out to be not so real. The foundation was dissolved by court order in 2019 after the New York attorney general alleged “a shocking pattern of illegality.”
Trump’s demands for contributions were just another chapter in the long-running, sometimes strained but mutually beneficial relationship between Trump and NBC that started with The Apprentice and finally ended when the network cut ties in June 2015. The New York Times has reported that despite Trump’s relentless self-promotion as a billionaire, his core business had suffered $90 million in net losses in 2004 — the year The Apprentice debuted. Once the show launched, he started paying taxes for the first time in years. The Times analysis showed he made $197 million directly from the show and another $230 million from the fame associated with it as he pitched everything from pizza to detergent to sometimes sketchy businesses such as the multilevel marketing company ACN, which is the subject of current litigation.
With those revelations about the critical role that The Apprentice played in keeping Trump financially afloat, THR talked to current and former NBC insiders about their memories of working with him on the show that arguably played a key role in helping him win the White House. NBCUniversal declined to comment, as did a White House spokesperson.
Trump had flirted with running in 2000, briefly seeking the nomination as the Reform Party candidate, but that was before The Apprentice had delivered a needed hit for the network and transformed Trump’s image from cartoonish developer to brilliant fat-cat businessman. An analysis by the conservative Media Research Center concluded that NBC’s promotion of Trump extended far beyond The Apprentice itself, creating ethical issues for the news division. The network’s coverage of Trump was “overwhelmingly and consistently positive,” the organization reported, finding only 15 stories on Trump’s business failures and 320 stories promoting him as a businessman, his businesses and his shows. Most of the coverage revolved around The Apprentice.
It all began with producer Mark Burnett doing what he does masterfully: selling. “He comes in with this great pitch — Survivor in the concrete jungle — which was a great line,” says one network veteran. “This is Burnett coming off the huge success of Survivor. Trump was attached and it was like, this is the perfect character. It was about to go to ABC. We made the deal in the room.”
“He had a name brand. He also had a personality,” says another executive of that era. “When they shot it and we saw the boardroom scene, we fell over backward. We thought we struck gold. From a creative standpoint, he was money in the bank.”
The plan had been for Trump to play the boss on The Apprentice only for its 2004 inaugural season, but he was such a success in the role that NBCUniversal naturally wanted to keep him. He didn’t make life easy. “Trump was always a nightmare,” says a network insider. “He tried to get the showrunners fired every other day. One of them was in the hot seat at all times.” The show ultimately went through three of them. A former network exec notes: “We had to build all kinds of systems with producers to make sure the show stayed on the rails. He was the perfect character: unfiltered stream of consciousness, crazy, well-edited to appear cohesive.”
He would brag to network execs about ratings and argue that the show should get a better time slot. If the ratings dipped, the network looked for data points to boost his mood. He also had ideas about how to improve the show, former insiders say. Says one: “He was obsessed with making boardroom scenes longer. He wanted that to be 80-90 percent of the show. It should just be the boardroom and not the task. He wanted more face time and more of himself on TV.”
Network execs told Trump that made no sense. “The tasks were sponsored by Fortune 500 companies,” says one. “Those sponsors paid a lot of money and he made a lot of that money. [But] it was one of those irrational requests. ‘I don’t care. There needs to be more about the boardroom. Everyone tells me the boardroom is the best part.’ Firing was the highest-rated part of the show. He’d hold on to that, thinking you could re-create that for 40 minutes.”
Trump had other suggestions. “He’d suggest people — whoever was in the news he’d ask to put on,” says another source. “He’d look at headlines and sometimes they were terrible ideas. He wanted [disgraced New York governor] Eliot Spitzer on, and then he wanted the [escort] Spitzer was sleeping with — Ashley Dupree. It was preposterous and we all told him it was crazy. But he would push for it.”
In 2006, Trump tossed his employees who served as boardroom advisers on the show, George Ross and Carolyn Kepcher. Ivanka replaced Kepcher while Don Jr. replaced Ross. “He had been trying to push them in there for a while,” says a network veteran. “George was getting so much attention. He became such a big character in the show. Trump got really jealous and pushed him out. Everyone was so upset. We all talked about the fact that Trump was jealous. It reminds me of the way he was with [Anthony] Fauci. It’s the exact same thing.”
The next year, with ratings fading, then-NBC Entertainment president Kevin Reilly canceled the series. But shortly afterward, Reilly’s tenure at NBC ended and he was replaced by Ben Silverman, the agent turned producer who had plenty of background in reality programming. He came up with the idea of morphing the show into The Celebrity Apprentice. Burnett had misgivings, a former NBC exec says. “He said, ‘I don’t think Donald will do Celebrity Apprentice because he needs to be the celebrity,’ ” this person recalls. But the network sold him on the idea; after all, it gave him the chance to fire other celebrities — and to stay on the air. Trump claimed that he had another show “in the works,” says the network source, but ultimately there were no takers. “He tried to do a syndicated show but nobody wanted it. He wasn’t Montel [Williams] or Maury [Povich]. Nobody was interested, including NBC affiliates.”
Silverman insisted on making Celebrity Apprentice into a two-hour show to make it more profitable for the network and insisted Trump’s fee wouldn’t go up. Still, Trump got a little something extra in the shape of the $10,000 donation to his foundation that he demanded to appear at the upfront that May. Despite the demand for the donation, a former NBC exec says Trump was “a good partner” in that “he cared about the performance of the show.”
In 2011, Trump demanded the far bigger, $500,000 donation to stay out of the presidential race and continue his show. He delayed his decision even as the network prepared to unveil its fall schedule at its upfront presentation in New York. The day before then-NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt was to appear before hundreds of advertisers, he was casting about for a replacement. NBC execs were nervous that Trump would renege until the moment he walked onstage at the midtown Hilton in Manhattan.
“After getting so many calls from [top NBC executives], I’ve decided that we are going to continue onward with Celebrity Apprentice,” he said. “I will not be running for president, as much as I’d like to, and I want to thank everybody very much,” he said. “This will be our 12th season, and I have to say, I love Celebrity Apprentice.” Advertisers burst into applause.
At that time, Paul Telegdy — who recently left NBC amid allegations of presiding over a toxic environment — was running the network’s reality division. While sources say he was not really a Trump fan, he nevertheless formed a relationship with Ivanka Trump, who was angling for her own show. “She pitched ideas, like a show where she’s head of a real estate office and a behind-the-scenes look at her business,” says a former insider. According to the source, the relationship was close enough that when Telegdy got engaged in 2011, Ivanka — who had her own jewelry line — assisted him in acquiring a diamond at a wholesale price.
By then, network executives were used to seeking favors from Trump, like discount rooms at his hotels. “Paul was not the only beneficiary of Trump having hotels and golf courses,” says a former network exec. “Back when [the show] had live finales, that was a reason for a bunch of execs to go play in New York.” After NBC finally dropped Trump in 2016, he posted a letter from Greenblatt on social media in which the then-head of the network raved in detail about Trump’s Las Vegas hotel. (“The grand suite was incredibly beautiful and goes above and beyond the taste and comfort level of most of the properties in Las Vegas that I’ve ever seen …”) Greenblatt concluded: “Your generosity means a lot to me and all my friends. I can’t thank you enough.”
In 2015, Trump once again pondered running for president. “He said he was announcing a bid in June and [he’d] be out of the race by September and start shooting [Celebrity Apprentice] in January,” says a former network insider. “He never expected to get any traction. He was doing it to boost his own brand.” At his June 15 launch event, he notoriously referred to Mexican immigrants as rapists, stirring great upset within the staff ranks. “It was discussed at a Monday development meeting,” says a person who was there. “Paul said he just got off the phone with him and he would be out by September. And then it took off. It became, ‘Oh, my God, is this real?’ Through the whole process Paul kept saying, ‘It’ll never happen, don’t worry, we’ll have the show back.’ ”
That hope quickly faded. On June 29, Teledgy was tasked with calling Trump to deliver the news: the network was cutting ties. Insiders say Trump responded with a loud torrent of abuse. “He couldn’t believe it,” says a former NBC insider. “He thought it was a mistake, and was belligerent and said it was a terrible decision and didn’t understand why.” The network cited Trump’s “continued derogatory statements” in announcing that it was severing ties.
Trump told reporters that NBC was “weak” and “foolish,” adding, “They didn’t want me to run because they wanted to do The Apprentice.” (This was actually true.) NBCU sources say Trump didn’t see why his candidacy or even presidency should make a difference. “He didn’t see why he couldn’t do the show from the Oval Office,” says one.
But even after severing ties with Trump, the network couldn’t quite quit him: During the campaign, he appeared on Saturday Night Live and on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show — causing blowback for both shows. In January 2016, Greenblatt defended the bookings, telling reporters, “If we were in the business of never having anyone guest on the network that had views that were different than our views, we would be out of business. … I think that reconciles quite easily with ‘We’re not in business with him.’”
And yet it seems links between Trump and NBC remain: After Trump refused to appear at a virtual town hall with Joe Biden, on Wednesday morning the network announced it will host a Trump town hall on Oct. 15, on the same night and time as a Biden event scheduled on ABC.
But looking back, a longtime NBC insider notes that Trump had already started promoting his racist “birther” theory about Barack Obama in 2011. If top execs had reacted at the time, this veteran says ruefully, the fate of a nation might have turned out differently. “They should have clamped down on him then, but they continued to turn the other way,” this person says. “It’s always all about the bottom line.”
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