When Donald Trump was first approached by Mark Burnett to star in a business reality show, the real estate mogul’s agent advised him to say no. “He told me that business shows never make it,” Trump recalled. He did the show anyway and The Apprentice became the 2004 TV season’s surprise hit, rising to number one in the ratings. Shortly after, the agent called to congratulate him and inquire about his commission, which he estimated at $3 million. Trump’s response: “You’re fired!”
That catchphrase, and Trump’s gruff delivery, are now famous worldwide. If his stature as a real estate powerhouse needed to be raised to even loftier heights, The Apprentice has certainly accomplished that objective. This evening, Thursday, September 16, The Apprentice returns on NBC for its tenth season. (In 2004 and 2005, two competitions were held. The seventh, eighth, and ninth seasons featured celebrities competing for their favorite charities). On Monday night, September 13, Trump appeared at the Paley Center, along with his children, Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr., and producer Mark Burnett, to preview the season’s first episode and discuss the show’s history.
Across the boardroom table, Trump can be intimidating. (Even Ivanka and Don Jr., who took an active on camera role this season, conceded they have had their own moments of heart palpitations when facing their father across that great wooden divide). In person, before an audience, Trump is charming, self-effacing, and, yes, even likeable. He understands comic timing and is quick to credit others with the program’s success. The evening’s panel had another great asset, NBC’s business commentator Erin Burnett, who served as moderator. Burnett, no relation to the producer (“Too bad,” he quipped), obviously has interviewed Trump before. While Burnett may have to nail the story when doing business news, she knew that the audience was expecting a fun, light-hearted evening. She helped to deliver on those expectations.
This season, as in previous seasons, the contestants will compete for a year-long job working for Trump at an annual salary of $250,000. Before the panel began, the Paley Center audience watched clips from the premiere episode introducing the 16 candidates, a microcosm of what is happening with the economy.
Their stories are gut wrenching. “Being unemployed has shattered me as a man,” one confessed. “Winning The Apprentice is the catalyst that will bring my life back,” a former executive said. One contestant used to run a construction company and had to sell his house. One man, with five children, saw his marriage collapse and hopes that winning will help him win his family back. Another was a financial advisor with no backup plan. A third is now driving a tow truck. One woman revealed that she went from a six-figure salary to buying second hand clothing. And there are several college graduates unable to find jobs. “It’s very sad,” Trump said. “Certain things happen to some of these people. Some were able to handle the adversity, some weren’t.”
Mark Burnett observed that, win or lose, the contestants actually welcomed the opportunity to be back at work, even if that work involved competing in a reality show. “It helped to build up momentum,” he said. “It takes a lot of courage to put yourself up there.”
Although only one person can win this competition, those who are eliminated will not always go away empty handed. “We are setting them up with major CEO’s—Terry Lundgren, of Macy’s, Steve Forbes, for example,” Trump revealed. “In a couple of cases, good things have happened.”
Good things tend to happen to the winners and losers who have appeared on the show. “The first apprentice, Bill Rancic, is doing very well,” Trump said. (Rancic has written books, appeared on TV, and is a real estate developer in Chicago). “Some have run for office. Omarosa [Manigault-Stallworth] made a living as a villain,” Trump added, earning laughter from the audience. “She’s done very well playing herself.”
Even the celebrities who have signed on have watched their fortunes rise. Joan Rivers, who was the winner in 2009, told Trump being on his show was the best thing she’s ever done. Trump lavished praise on the comedienne who, at 76 years-old, competed with more energy and excitement than many of the younger celebrities, even the professional athletes in the group. Country Music singer Trace Adkins, told Trump before being on Celebrity Apprentice he couldn’t get an invitation to the Country Music Awards. Now he’s hosting!
No surprise, then, that celebrities are now clamoring to be on the show. For the first Celebrity Apprentice, Trump said, they had to beg people to volunteer. Now many high profile celebrities are competing for the spots. Trump did throw out one name, Clint Black, the country singer, as someone who will be in the next competition.
Celebrities are well known commodities, but regular people who apply to be contestants on The Apprentice have to be fully vetted. Burnett said that thousands of people apply online and by sending in audition DVDs. After the group is winnowed down to a somewhat manageable number (Burnett says he immediately eliminates those who apply to numerous reality shows) the survivors are interviewed in Los Angeles. There is an intense psychological test, a session with a psychologist, and a medical exam. Background checks, including credit checks and interviews with relatives, friends, neighbors, follow. At the end, 16 people are left standing to compete.
The panel was careful not to give away the winner or any plot twists. (Although it was revealed that the person being eliminated at the end of each episode is often on camera the most to build up a connection with the audience). The show is not scripted and after just a short time, the contestants forget they are being filmed, even though there may be as many as 32 cameras in the room at one time. (Trump said that one CEO froze when confronted with the bank of cameras).
For the season’s first challenge, the contestants were broken up into male and female teams (the best way to divide up the group, according to Burnett) and told to design a workspace. While the next few minutes of the program showed a lot of activity, “The Donald” was not pleased. “I didn’t like either space very much,” he informed the group. Crestfallen faces all around. How the first round ends, who will be fired first, is revealed tonight. Stay tuned. There’s a lot riding on this one.