Actor/bodybuilder/politician Arnold Schwarzenegger announced Friday that he was leaving The Celebrity Apprentice, cementing the season as a total failure. And the roots for that failure are the ties to the toxic brand of President Donald Trump.
When NBC announced in 2015 that Schwarzenegger would host the program, the network sold the move to the media as an effort to take the show in a completely different direction. CNN’s Brian Stelter and Frank Pallotta noted that the audience “has dropped considerably over the years.” NBC’s president of alternative and late night programming, Paul Telegdy, said that while Schwarzenegger would use the same format as Trump, he had a “fresh take on how to take it to new heights for today's audiences.”
It is clear this 'moving in a different direction' act was a facade from the very beginning. In December of 2016, Variety broke the news that Trump would remain an executive producer on the show. In response to the ensuing firestorm, Schwarzenegger admitted that he knew about Trump’s continued role ever since he accepted the gig in 2015.
If Schwarzenegger knew, there is every reason to presume that NBC was aware as well. This means that NBC put into production a show that Trump the candidate had a financial interest in -- the same show where, according to reports during the campaign, Trump had previously engaged in disgusting behavior on set, drawing allegations of sexism from more than 20 staffers. A former show staffer said that there were far worse tapes than the Access Hollywood clip of Trump bragging about grabbing women’s genitals. At no point during the campaign did NBC seek to address any of these concerns. Schwarzenegger later said that no one was thinking about Trump’s potential presidency when the series was shot in February of 2016.
While Schwarzenegger and NBC were busy not talking about Trump’s ongoing ties to the series, we did learn that while Trump bragged about personally handing out charitable donations, NBC actually paid for them -- and that was only revealed because of great reporting from David Fahrenthold and Alice Crites of The Washington Post. It got so bad that MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow went on air and pled with her parent company and Mark Burnett Productions to release tapes of Trump from his time on the show to clear things up. This entreaty was prompted by the release of the Access Hollywood tape of Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women. Even though Access Hollywood, an NBC show, owned the tape, it wasn’t NBC that broke the story, but again, Fahrenthold at The Washington Post.
The gravity of the conflict of interest between NBC and Trump crystallized once Trump’s executive producer credit was announced. A statement from Kellyanne Conway, now a counselor to Trump, implied that he would be involved in producing the show in his “spare time.” Trump himself then said he would “devote ZERO TIME” to it.
Schwarzenegger began his rollout tour with an interview on the Today show that would be a harbinger for what was to come. Schwarzenegger and host Matt Lauer gushed over the new season (which, fine, as those things go), but it was when Trump’s involvement came up that things went completely off the rails. From Media Matters’ transcript of the show:
MATT LAUER (HOST): You seem like a great pick. [Trump] has announced he's going to retain his executive producer credit. So after January 20 he's going to be president of the United States and executive producer of the Celebrity Apprentice. Does that sound right to you?
ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: What was great about it was that he was part of the negotiation. So I mean I get millions of dollars for hosting the show but NBC doesn't have to pay for it. Trump makes Mexico pay for it. Isn't that great? That was the best deal that he's done. That's true.
LAUER: I set you up for that. That was my fault. He says he’s going to spend zero time on the show, he’s going to focus obviously on the presidency. But would you be surprised if you got a call mid-season and it said, look, Arnold, I have a couple of tips for you?
SCHWARZENEGGER: I always like to get advice but I don't think that he will have time. I think it is perfectly fine that he has the executive producer credit because he created the show with Mark Burnett together, so why should his credit go. I totally see it. But he made it very clear that he has no interest in being involved. It is now my show. I am the host. I am the new boss, and I am going to run this show. But any time he has advice -- or anyone has advice, if you call me one day and say, “Look I saw the show. If you would add so and so as a celebrity,” I would take your advice.
It’s after the bizarre Mexico line from Schwarzenegger that things really go downhill. Both Lauer (the NBC newsman who hosted a presidential forum) and Schwarzenegger want to have it both ways: They state for the record that President Trump would not actually be involved, but they also tease potential involvement. What’s inescapable from this conversation is that the Celebrity Apprentice is still built around Donald Trump’s brand.
And that was a major problem. How would NBC report on a potential scandal involving Trump? If Trump retained a percentage of the show’s profits, would advertisers rush to the show to curry favor with the president of the United States? NBC’s main tactic was to say that MGM was the company actually producing the show, but that hardly addresses the ethical concerns. And beyond the ethical concerns were the business concerns. Trump’s brand has become increasingly toxic as he has made more and more unhinged and bigoted statements in public.
Nearly a year after the Schwarzenegger-Trump season of Celebrity Apprentice was shot, it premiered in January -- and ratings were abysmal. By February, Schwarzenegger and Trump were openly feuding over viewership numbers, with Trump bizarrely using his National Prayer Breakfast appearance to focus on the subject.
On March 3, Schwarzenegger announced he was leaving the show, having suddenly become realistic about Trump’s involvement. He told Empire magazine that Trump’s toxic brand was to blame for the failure:
“It's not about the show,” [Schwarzenegger] explained. “because everyone I ran into came up to me and said 'I love the show... but I turned it off because as soon as I read Trump's name I'm outta there!'”
“When people found out that Trump was still involved as executive producer and was still receiving money from the show, then half the people [started] boycotting it.”
Social media campaign #grabyourwallet appears to have been a factor, imploring consumers and sponsors alike to ditch Celebrity Apprentice in direct response to the US President's continued involvement. The boycott's success may well be reflected in the show's viewing figures and the hasty retreat of commercial backers.
“Even if asked [to do it again] I would decline.” Said (sic) Schwarzenegger. “With Trump being involved in the show people have a bad taste and don't want to participate as a spectator or as a sponsor or in any other way support the show. It's a very divisive period now and I think this show got caught up in all that division.”
What Trump did not mention: The Celebrity Apprentice was also a financial disaster because of his own continued involvement. From TheWrap:
NBC’s reboot of “Celebrity Apprentice,“ with new host Arnold Schwarzenegger, wasn’t exactly a ratings killer. But as the network decides whether to renew the show, it faces another problem: Half its sponsors from last season have bailed out after boycott threats.
A campaign called #GrabYourWallet, which called on sponsors to abandon the show because of President Donald Trump’s involvement with it, said six of the show’s 12 corporate backers from last season have agreed not to return. None of the companies explicitly cited Trump as their reason, but campaign organizer Shannon Coulter says the gold-plated writing is on the wall.
“I think it’s pretty clear at this point that the Trump brand name is toxic,” she told TheWrap.
So, to recap: NBC sullied itself ethically, lost sponsors, tied its brand to a sexist bigot and white nationalist fave, stonewalled about Trump’s misogynistic and likely abusive history with the program, and made its news division cheerfully take part in a massive conflict of interest. And the entire endeavor failed miserably.
NBC, next time save yourself the trouble and just take our advice.