NBC was all but ready to cancel The Apprentice in 2007, but the Writers Guild strike of the same year gave NBC boss Jeff Zucker pause for thought. Cancelling a cheap, script-free reality show in advance of a multi-million dollar strike? It must have felt like a no-brainer to recommission it – but little did Zucker know that, in doing so, he was creating a monster…
One year and one day before he would go on to win the 2016 US Presidential Election, Donald Trump had a rather unusual item on his campaign itinerary. He was booked to host NBC’s late-night comedy show, Saturday Night Live.
Though it would be Trump’s second time hosting (his first was in 2004), it was his first in the capacity of a political candidate. He had yet to secure the Republican Party’s nomination at this point, and the show’s writers – like much of the watching world – obviously didn’t think that Trump had any chance of surviving the primaries. So they played the whole thing for laughs.
They had him dance to Hotline Bling! They put in him a two-tone wig like Sia! They had Ivanka make a cameo where she drops by the Oval Office to interrupt a meeting (which was every bit as hilarious as when she did it for real, two years later!)
Another sketch – which was filmed but didn’t make it to air – was about a team of miniature soldiers stationed upon Trump’s scalp to keep his hair in place while he conducted secret meetings with Vladimir Putin. Haha! Imagine! Donald Trump and his crazy hair colluding with the Russians!
It was about as toothless as satire is capable of being. The only slightly dicey moment of the live broadcast came towards the end of Trump’s opening monologue when a heckle was heard from the side of the stage.
“You’re a racist!” the voice yelled from the wings. “Trump’s a racist!”
The voice turned out to be Larry David’s. The camera cut to him shrugging, saying he’d been told there was $5,000 up for grabs if someone called Trump a racist on TV. It wasn’t a protest. It was a gag.
To put all of this in its proper place on the Trump timeline, the episode was written, rehearsed and aired in the first week of November 2015 – meaning that it was a couple of months after Trump had called Mexicans rapists and murderers, but a week before he would suggest implementing a national Muslim database.
Protestors had therefore been camped outside the NBC studios on Rockefeller Plaza that night, objecting to the choice of host, outraged that the network would willingly give him free airtime to further his hateful campaign.
It wasn’t just SNL’s most-viewed episode of the season. It was their most viewed episode in years.
The backlash from SNL’s liberal audience (which is to say, SNL’s audience) was swift and furious. How dare they give a platform to this racist demagogue? How dare they normalise fascism in this way? Would they have given Hitler and Mussolini their own variety show?
When SNL’s next season debuted, a month before the election in October 2016, the writers were clearly trying to make amends. They went at Trump all guns blazing, a million miles from the chummy soft-soaping he got when he was host, with Alec Baldwin being drafted in to perform an utterly grotesque impression of him any chance they got.
By now though, it was no use. The monster into which they had breathed life was impervious to their attacks.
Five weeks later, Trump won the election.
NBC’s role in the making of President Donald Trump isn’t simply confined to Saturday Night Live however. It merely traces, in miniature, the same arc of a much larger story.
The true extent of NBC’s role in the making of President Donald Trump begins much, much earlier – with Jeff Zucker, The Apprentice and the 2007 Writers’ Guild Of America strike.
You may remember in Part One we mentioned that, in the twenty years since it started broadcasting the revolutionary reality TV show Cops, Fox had grown from being an outlier ‘fourth’ channel to become America’s most-watched network.
When Fox started, NBC had been the most-watched network, but it hadn’t just slipped into second place. It hadn’t even slipped into third. NBC had gone from being the most-watched network to the fourth.
This was an astonishing drop from a network which, for almost all of the late 80s and the 90s, had a stranglehold on the highest-rated shows on the air. Series like Cheers, The Cosby Show, ER, Seinfeld, Will & Grace, Friends, Law & Order and The West Wing had made NBC untouchable – right up until the turn of the century.
To give you some idea of NBC’s dominance: in the 1996/7 season, seven of the top ten rated shows of the year were theirs – including the entire top six. Ten years later, NBC wouldn’t have a single show in the 2006/07 top ten. By the time of the Writers’ Guild strike (2007/08) it would only have one show in the whole of the top twenty.
How did its fortunes change so drastically? How did a once-proud network fall so far from grace? Most of it can be attributed to the work of one man: Jeff Zucker.
Zucker was a long-time company man at NBC. He had first joined the network in 1986 as a researcher to prep for their 1988 Summer Olympics coverage. Shortly after that, he moved across to flagship morning show, Today, and became its executive producer in 1992.
His tenure on Today is generally regarded as being an extremely successful one (the minor blip of making a star out of recently disgraced sex-pest supervillain Matt Lauer notwithstanding). Under his watch, Today grew to overtake ABC’s Good Morning America as the top-rated morning show on American TV, where it remained for six unbroken years.
So it made sense that Zucker would be lined up to take a high-level post at NBC at some point.
From 2000 onwards, Zucker took a succession of executive C-suite positions within the company – all of which made him sound as if he was the top dog there, yet also somehow left him enough space to get promoted to another, even grander-sounding job.
They were, in order: President of NBC Entertainment (2000), President of NBC Entertainment’s News & Cable Group (2003), President of NBC Television Group (2004), Chief Executive Officer of NBC (2005), President and CEO of NBC Universal (2007).
The two we’re mainly interested in here are the 2000 role – which is when Zucker started being able to greenlight programming; and the 2007 role – which is when he started calling the network’s make-or-break shots.
This was the year when rival network CBS debuted a brand new series for the summer: the reality competition game show, Survivor.
An unexpected ratings smash, Survivor quickly became the highest-rated show of the year, nudging NBC’s ER into second place. Capitalising on this success, CBS announced that, for its second season, it was going to be moving it to a new timeslot, airing on Thursday nights at 8pm – in direct competition with NBC’s biggest sitcom, Friends.
Zucker’s immediate response to this was to extend the length of Friends episodes by six minutes each, to prevent viewers from being able to flip over to CBS at 8:30 to catch the second half of Survivor. Obviously this wasn’t a practical solution to the wider problem that Survivor’s success posed, but it worked well enough in this instance to buy him some time.
Things were changing in television. If NBC wanted to continue to keep up, it would need a better answer to the shift in audiences’ demands than making all of their programmes six minutes longer.
Zucker needed to tackle this problem head on, broaden NBC’s horizons and add some Survivor-style reality-based programming to its line-up. So who better to tap up for ideas than the producer of Survivor himself, Mark Burnett?
Luckily for Zucker, Burnett had exactly the right project in mind…
The elevator pitch for The Apprentice was basically this: Survivor in the boardroom.
The broad outline of the new show would be pretty much the same – sixteen contestants, broken up into two teams, are set a series of challenges over thirteen episodes with an elimination occurring at the end of each one.
In this version though the jungle would be swapped for an office, the teams would be ‘companies’, not ‘tribes’ (the laughably shit names could still remain); and instead of having to eat grubs, dive into mud pits or traverse a rope course, contestants would have to strike a series of business deals to keep from getting fired.
It might not be as audacious a premise as Survivor but, provided that the contestants displayed a decent blend of delusion and egomania, it would still have plenty of potential for the sorts of arguments, back-stabbing and drama that reality TV thrived on.
All they needed to make the show a success was the right host – which is where Donald Trump enters the picture.
The series’ creator, Mark Burnett, had long been an admirer of Trump’s business sensibilities after reading The Art Of The Deal when he was a T-shirt seller on the streets of Los Angeles in the late 80s. This was music to Jeff Zucker’s ears as NBC and Trump had just struck up a working relationship, going in together on a co-ownership deal on the Miss Universe pageant.
Trump would be ideal if they could convince him that it would be worth his while. And while it didn’t take no persuading, they found Trump to be very amenable.
Having suffered a series of disastrous business failures, debt issues and company bankruptcies in the 90s, Trump had since shifted out of the bricks and mortar game and moved into branding and licensing. As such, his primary business was now his name. Whether he was plastering it on a hotel, a bottle of vodka, a steak or a reality TV show concept, anything that Donald Trump could do to strengthen the core values of the Trump brand was money in his pocket.
A few simple assurances that the series would portray him as an ultra-successful businessman who lived a billionaire’s lifestyle was all it took. Trump was in.
To everyone’s credit, the first season of The Apprentice – which aired in early 2004 – was a huge success. It brought in millions of viewers, clinching better ratings than Survivor, and spawned a number of international spin-off versions.
Successive seasons tailed off rapidly, however, with each bringing in fewer and fewer viewers. Things had nosedived so badly by 2007 that Zucker decided it wasn’t worth renewing the series for a seventh season. He left the show off his fall schedule, even though he still had Donald Trump under contract for another year.
This, predictably, infuriated Trump. Immediately, he flounced off issuing a statement saying that he wasn’t fired, he had quit, and he was leaving the network to pursue other, bigger TV opportunities elsewhere.
The Apprentice looked as if it was about to turn up its toes.
Then the Writers Guild of America went on strike.
In late 2007, talks between the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Moving Picture and Television Producers broke down. Primarily, the WGA had been trying to restructure writers’ payment agreements so they were fairly remunerated for DVD sales, and to pre-empt the new and emerging media platforms so that members wouldn’t get ripped off when home entertainment systems made the inevitable shift towards digital streaming.
They also wanted to take some official control over the production of reality television too. While the Guild conceded that shows like Survivor and The Apprentice weren’t scripted exactly, they were hardly verité documentaries either. There was all sorts of tweaking and editing that happened to give them a narrative arc. All of these shows had dedicated story producers working to create storylines out of raw footage, which – the WGA argued – constituted a type of screenwriting.
The networks knew that reality TV was too useful and precious a commodity to let the unions take it over so, as the two parties couldn’t reach any satisfactory compromise, the WGA called a strike.
Much like the 1988 strike, this meant that no episodes of scripted shows would be handed over to the studios until the dispute was resolved. However, unlike the 1988 strike, this time the networks knew they had the option to commission a lot of unscripted, cheap reality TV to fill in the gaps in the programming schedules.
Fox – the network that first hit upon this canny workaround by commissioning Cops in 1988 – weren’t so worried about the effect that a November strike would have on them. They had a new season of the scriptless ratings smash American Idol all ready to go in the new year.
CBS had Survivor running two seasons a year. ABC had Dancing With The Stars doing the same. That meant they both had surefire hits in their back pockets to guarantee their respective networks a viewership over the duration of the strike.
NBC, though? Well, the newly installed President and CEO of NBC Universal, Jeff Zucker, had gone and painted his network into a bit of a tight corner.
The previous year, he had decided to put their Survivor-style game-show, Fear Factor, on indefinite hiatus – replacing it in the schedules with episodes of the terminally unfunny Joey.
America’s Got Talent was on the NBC slate, but it had been scheduled over the summer (in order to avoid a clash with Fox’s more successful American Idol) which meant it wouldn’t help to fill any of the empty schedule slots spawned by a November strike.
And he had just provisionally cancelled The Apprentice.
The writers’ strike meant that Zucker would no longer be able to fill that gap with any new episodes of a scripted show (though if Joey was his big idea of how to shore up ratings, that was probably for the best). What he really needed was a reality hit. Something that didn’t require union writers. He still had Donald Trump under contract for one more year, so maybe there was some way to adapt or refine the format to bring new life into the franchise?
Which is how The Celebrity Apprentice came to be.
It turned out to be exactly the shot in the arm the series needed. While it didn’t quite match the success of that original first season, The Celebrity Apprentice took the show from a lull of 4.7m viewers back up to an impressive 11m viewers.
The writers’ strike, meanwhile, ended after three months – shortly before the seventh episode of this new Apprentice season aired. The WGA didn’t get anything like what they were after for members. The writers saw no changes in residuals from DVD sales, they got a minimal percentage on the new media streaming stuff, and they formally withdrew their attempts to take jurisdiction over reality TV.
It was a huge win for the networks. But it came at an unimaginable cost.
For seven more years, Donald Trump would get to play the part of a self-made billionaire business tycoon on TV. Now, we don’t mean to overstate the importance of his getting to play a kingmaker on primetime television (there were plenty of factors which led to his presidency) but it shouldn’t be understated either.
If we treat The Apprentice and The Celebrity Apprentice as two separate shows for a moment, both came at extremely opportune moments for Trump – and, by extension, the Trump brand.
In 2004, when the original Apprentice series aired, Trump suffered his third corporate bankruptcy as Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts filed for Chapter 11 protection. The merits, or otherwise, of using Chapter 11 provisions in business aside, stories that involve the word ‘bankruptcy’ don’t generate good headlines.
Over the six seasons of the original Apprentice’s run, between 2004 and 2007, he launched a number of failed ventures. Trump Steaks was launched and folded within two months. The implosion of the housing market caused his mortgage lending business, Trump Mortgage, to shut up shop after a year and a half, and his luxury travel search engine GoTrump.com pulled down the shutters too.
Things would only get worse.
When the celebrity edition of The Apprentice started airing in 2008, Trump’s business portfolio was in even more comprehensive turmoil. Trump would see his fourth corporate bankruptcy as Trump Entertainment Resorts filed for Chapter 11 in 2009. As the series continued, Trump Magazine would cease publication, Trump Vodka would cease production and the Trump Network – effectively a giant nutritional supplements Ponzi scheme – would come crashing down.
This isn’t even to make a start on all the heavy-duty litigation that Trump was involved in over this time – most prominently, the two federal class-action lawsuits he was served for defrauding people with Trump University, which he’d end up settling for a not insubstantial $25m.
The reality of Donald Trump the businessman was a very, very different thing to Donald Trump the reality TV businessman.
(NB: It’s also worth noting that all the scandalous sex NDA and sex harassment cases that Trump is currently up to his neck in – with porn star Stormy Daniels, Playboy playmate Karen McDougal and former Apprentice contestant Summer Zervos – all stem from around this same 2006/07 time period.)
But Trump wasn’t the only one who would get a shot at rehabilitating his ailing profile on The Celebrity Apprentice. If you’re familiar with the story of Frankenstein, you’ll know that the scientist didn’t just create one monster.
He created two.
The Monster’s Bride
In 2004, Piers Morgan was sacked as editor of the Daily Mirror for printing faked photographs, supposedly depicting the torture of Iraqi prisoners by British soldiers, on the front page.
The whole thing proved to be a rather humiliating experience for poor Piers, but it did end up having a rather neat silver lining for him. It meant that he was now available at short notice.
So when his friend Simon Cowell called and asked if he could take his place as the snarky, sanctimonious Brit judge on NBC’s new reality talent show America’s Got Talent (Cowell’s ironclad contract with American Idol on Fox prevented him from taking the job himself) Piers packed up his stuff and went to break the States.
Piers consequently developed quite a taste for reality television, and agreed to sign up to appear on a special charity edition of the UK Apprentice on the BBC for Red Nose Day, March 2007.
Comic Relief Does The Apprentice was a celebrity twist on the regular Apprentice format, where British businessman Alan Sugar oversaw a bunch of UK celebs attempting the sorts of business tasks he’d been setting civilian contestants, in order to raise money for charity.
It would also be the very same show that gave Zucker, Trump and Burnett the idea for the season seven reboot: The Celebrity Apprentice.
Over the course of Comic Relief Does The Apprentice, Piers:
– Kidnapped a chef
– Bragged about being able to refill a stapler (then fucked it up)
– Got into a physical altercation with Trinny Woodall and made her cry
– Spouted e n d l e s s bullshit about his celebrity mates; and, ultimately
– Was the sole contestant to be fired
So naturally he was snapped up for the first season of NBC’s own version.
Much like they did with Trump, Piers Morgan’s appearances on NBC’s reality shows offered him a strange sheen of respectability. When he was appearing as a judge on America’s Got Talent, or as the eventual winner of The Celebrity Apprentice, he wasn’t the guy who had published hoax photos in the British press. He wasn’t the guy who had his knuckles rapped for insider trading while editing a finance column either. Nor was he the guy who oversaw a tabloid newspaper that would go on to make millions of pounds of settlement payouts to various celebrities when it became engulfed in the phone-hacking scandal.
He was now just known as “The Snooty British One”.
When allegations of phone-hacking did eventually surface and he was called to give his famously “utterly unpersuasive” evidence (c. Lord Leveson, 2012) on his recollections of the illegal practice at the Mirror, where was our boy Piers?
After five years of critiquing ventriloquism, telling children he saw big things in their futures and offering his opinions on doggie dance troupes – he had left the world of NBC entertainment. His rehabilitation was complete.
He was now the host of his own nightly show on a news network: CNN
The twist in this tale is that, after being the one who gave Donald Trump and Piers Morgan their shots at redemption on NBC, Jeff Zucker would soon be the one gunning hardest to bring the pair of them down. Something he was able to start doing in earnest in 2013, when he took over as President of CNN.
This is where our Frankenstein analogy starts to break down, however – for where Victor Frankenstein’s attempts to destroy his monsters were driven by an almighty sense of guilt, Jeff Zucker’s were driven by something altogether less ethical.
Trump’s fractious relationship with CNN under Zucker’s reign is well-documented and not something that we really need to dig into right now (although we will inevitably end up talking about it more in Part Four). Instead, let’s look at what happened with the other monster.
Jeff Zucker would eventually be the one to take the axe to Piers Morgan.
Piers’ ratings on CNN were bad and only getting worse. Not incorrectly, he surmised that this was because he was “a British guy debating American cultural issues, including guns, which has been very polarizing, and there is no doubt that there are many in the audience who are tired of me banging on about it.”
Gun control had, indeed, become a cornerstone of his output in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting. It was around that same time that he had the disastrous idea to get InfoWars’ infamous conspiracy peddler Alex Jones on his show to discuss gun regulation.
Alex Jones was once most famous for believing that the Sandy Hook shooting was a false flag operation, a hoax perpetrated by gun control advocates which used child crisis actors to pose as murder victims and survivors.
Now, thanks in part to Piers Morgan rolling out the red carpet for him, he’s famous for pushing theories about everything: from vaccines causing autism, to the moon landings being fake, to John Podesta running a child sex ring from a DC pizza restaurant’s basement to the government owning military technology to weaponise the weather. No theory is too boneheaded for Alex Jones.
Because of his own gargantuan ego, Piers Morgan’s ‘hook’ for inviting him on was because Jones had set up the petition asking the White House to “Deport British Citizen Piers Morgan For Attacking 2nd Amendment”. Always happy to make himself the centre of attention, Piers thought he could run rings around a wackjob off YouTube and get himself a few good headlines.
Except he couldn’t.
Had he been led by something other than his unquenchable thirst for attention, Piers would probably have realised that inviting a 9/11 truther on for a reasoned debate on the Second Amendment was a bad idea.
Instead, he let himself get absolutely steamrollered by Jones for fifteen whole minutes.
This interview capped off a rather eventful first week for Jeff Zucker as President of CNN.
Not only did it get headlines for all the wrong reasons, it gave Alex Jones a huge platform. Not only did he use to promote his own conspiracy theory website and show, Jones pointed out that Piers Morgan had been fired from the Mirror for printing fake photos, and also mentioned out that he was facing calls from the UK to answer for his part in the wider phone-hacking scandal that had just broken.
It takes a special sort of shitehawk to be utterly discredited by Alex Jones, but that’s what happened – and, with that, the first seeds of the CNN Fake News motif had been planted.
So it’s no surprise that when Donald Trump was finally elected in 2016, one of his first calls was to thank Alex Jones.
Return To The Scene Of The Crime
There’s one final thing you have to know about Jeff Zucker.
When he was a high school student in Florida in the early 80s, he worked as a stringer for The Miami Herald. South Florida’s second largest paper, the Herald covers the local areas of Monroe County, Miami-Dade and… Broward County.
That name ought to be ringing bells again. Broward County is where the recent Parkland shooting took place, and where the entire first season of Cops was filmed on location.
The fact that Broward County also crops up in Jeff Zucker’s formative work experience just so happens to be coincidence.
The fact that his news channel, CNN, was the one to host the recently televised Town Hall debate on gun control in Broward County isn’t.
In Part Four, we’ll explore how another teenager who did work experience for a Broward County newspaper – a teenager who Alex Jones would also try to brand as a crisis actor – will come to have a bearing on this whole story.
But before we do that, we’re going to have to look at the wider effect of reality TV. Not just on pop culture, not just on the media, or the mad spectacle of contemporary international politics – but on society as a whole.
And, in doing so, we’ll hopefully explain exactly why Gordon Brown’s sloppy mic technique has a hell of a lot to answer for.