So why is the Donald blessing the Republican field with his presence this time around? The answer is relatively simple. For all that his fortune is based in real estate development, Trump has been, for quite some time now, fundamentally an entertainer. But Trump’s entertainment businesses haven’t been looking so great lately. Trump has always been a big, audacious talker, but he has pretended that he’s thinking about running for president often enough that hot air won’t lift ratings on “The Apprentice” and “The Celebrity Apprentice” the way they might have in the past. This time, if he wants to juice his entertainment career, Trump has to actually get into the game, if only for a little while.
It’s amazing to look back at the early years of “The Apprentice,” Trump’s reality competition show, and its spinoff, “The Celebrity Apprentice,” and to remember just how wide their reach was. In 2004, 27.6 million people tuned in to the first-season finale of “The Apprentice,” which gave contestants a shot at a job working for Trump, a number that briefly made it the most popular show on television — it had been raking in as many as 20 million viewers for earlier episodes. When “The Celebrity Apprentice,” which featured famous people competing for a cash prize on behalf of charities, made its debut four years later, 12.1 million people tuned in for the results show, a smaller, but still respectable, number.
The decline in years since has been substantial; by 2010, “The Apprentice” was capturing a quarter of the audience it had pulled in its first season and was airing in between seasons of “The Celebrity Apprentice.” “The Celebrity Apprentice” had a slower decline, perhaps because it had less far to fall. There was a delay of a year and a half between the 2013 and 2015 seasons, which produced a bit of a ratings bounce: An average of 7.6 million people tuned in to the 2015 season, up from 5.6 million in 2013. But that is hardly the sort of uptick that signals that a juggernaut has returned.
To a certain extent, Trump has been the victim of a more general fragmentation in television viewership. With many more options, both on cable and on streaming services such as Hulu, Netflix and Amazon Prime (disclosure: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Post), the number of viewers that makes a hit is much smaller than it was a decade ago: “Empire” won that title by pulling 21.1 million viewers for its finale earlier this year. And reality television in particular has struggled; it’s cheap to produce, but viewers seem somewhat oversaturated on competitions and supposedly unusual families offered up for their gawking pleasure.
So if Trump was going to run for president, a move that requires NBC to look at whether he can continue hosting “The Celebrity Apprentice” in light of equal-airtime rules, the 2016 cycle isn’t a bad time to do it. And to be honest, he’s hardly alone in using the campaign cycle to fuel a media career. Long-shot candidates such as Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson are probably in the race in part to boost book sales, radio appearances and their Fox News relevance. Trump may be splashier and trashier than other contestants who are playing a similar game, but in a way, there’s something valuable and clarifying about his presence in the race. Most of the campaign is entertainment and self-aggrandizement, whether the contestants are, in reality television parlance, “there for the right reasons,” or not.