The show’s strange endurance is fitting because, at one point — believe it or not — “The Apprentice” seemed unstoppable.
Donald Trump, TV superstar
In spring 2003, Mark Burnett – the hottest reality TV producer around thanks to “Survivor” – pitched a competition show where young, business-savvy men and women vied for a job with Donald Trump, the infamous New York billionaire real estate mogul. According to “Desperate Networks,” a book by former New York Times reporter Bill Carter, three broadcast networks aggressively bid on the project, which had an $18 million price tag for a 15-episode season.
NBC was the lucky winner, and the network was indeed desperate at the time. “Friends” was entering its final season and entertainment president Jeff Zucker was frantic for a hit show to take its place. In a very controversial move at the time, Zucker scheduled “The Apprentice” for 9 p.m. on Thursdays after “Friends” and “Will & Grace” – giving his new show a great launch pad but effectively destroying NBC’s carefully-cultivated “Must See TV” comedy line-up. TV historians wept.
Such a risky move had to have a big payoff, and it did. “The Apprentice” was an enormous hit, averaging about 21 million viewers over its first season in January 2004, making stars out of unknowns including winner Bill Rancic and show villain Omarosa. It was an especially proud moment for Zucker, Carter wrote, because while the other networks liked Burnett, no one had faith that Trump would be the draw. But Zucker knew he could be a true TV star.
“Donald Trump was suddenly the hottest name in television – as he was pleased to point out to anyone who was listening,” Carter wrote. “His tag line – ‘You’re fired!’ – as he lowered the boom on the latest failed high-achiever, became one of the most awaited television moments of the week.”
The foundation starts to crumble
NBC quickly ordered two more seasons to air that fall and in Spring 2005. However, the third season had some missteps: Trump hated the cast that NBC assembled and blamed the network as ratings started to slide, Carter reported, as the show slipped to about 14 million viewers per episode. (It didn’t help that its lead-in was the abysmal “Joey” instead of the behemoth “Friends.”) NBC was still quite pleased by those numbers, though.
The drama got worse when Burnett tapped recently-imprisoned Martha Stewart for her own version of “The Apprentice” that would air on NBC along with Trump’s fourth season in Fall 2005, with the thinking that everyone would want to tune in to see America’s most famous celebrity inmate. It didn’t go well. Stewart’s edition flopped and Trump later complained that it damaged his flagship show. Still: “The hit version with Donald Trump was already sliding, diminished by the wretched lead-ins and probably too much exposure,” Carter wrote, adding that some were surprised that Trump still wanted to star on the show himself after a few seasons.
But Trump couldn’t get enough of the primetime TV spotlight. While the show soldiered on for a fifth season, ratings really started to slide, especially when the sixth season moved production to Los Angeles. Then, at the NBC upfronts in May 2007, the show was mysteriously absent from the fall schedule. Trump didn’t take so kindly to that: Reuters reported that Trump released a statement that said he was “moving on from ‘The Apprentice’ to a major new TV venture,” seemingly quitting before he could get fired.
But Trump and NBC made up, to the surprise of many, and the network renewed the show again. “NBC put a stake in Donald Trump, but they forgot to pour holy water over ‘The Apprentice,’” one TV reporter wrote wryly of the show’s resurrection. The twist: The seventh season would feature only celebrities, officially becoming “Celebrity Apprentice.”
Celebrities to the rescue
The all-Hollywood angle breathed some life back into the series. The network ordered another celebrity edition almost immediately after the first one debuted in January 2008, calling this new twist a “game changer.” After that, it was a quick succession of renewals each year, with celebrity winners including Piers Morgan, Joan Rivers, Bret Michaels and John Rich.
The familiar names helped bring some interest, and producers quickly learned their lesson that it should be all celebrities, all the time. The show briefly went back to a regular “Apprentice” for Season 10 in fall 2010, featuring contestants hit hard by the recession. But viewership dropped to a new low; the show quickly corrected course and from then on, was only “Celebrity Apprentice.”
Though things ran fairly smoothly for the next few years, “Celebrity Apprentice” hit another snag after an all-star version in 2013, when the show just…disappeared. In May 2013, many again assumed the series (now bringing in an average of about 7 million viewers a week) was canceled after it didn’t show up on the NBC fall schedule – though Trump tweeted it had been renewed for Season 14. NBC stayed quiet until the following year, when executives confirmed that it was filming in the spring.
The season was filmed, though the network still held it from airing. “Every few years, some of these reality franchises (rest),” NBC chairman Bob Greenblatt explained to reporters over the summer, but didn’t confirm its debut date until months later in November. Finally, the new, shortened season debuted in January, and immediately met with controversy during a premiere that repeatedly brought up Bill Cosby.
Alas, if you thought that was a bad sign, NBC didn’t even wait to see the ratings for the premiere (about 6 million viewers); the network announced during the episode that the series was already renewed for Season 15. A few days later, Trump came to Winter 2015 TV Press Tour and tried to claim it was “the No. 1 show on television” — but reporters clarified that was far from the case.
Now, as Trump continues his presidential campaign, the network is still determined to make the “Apprentice” franchise continue, even possibly without Trump. Do NBC executives need the show that badly? Or do they think Trump’s much-mocked presidential run won’t be much of an issue for long? Either way – it’s truly the show that will not die.