For some people, appearing on TV is no big deal.
In fact, for some, it’s the most natural thing in the world. Such is the case with Donald Trump, who breezes into TV studios as if he owns them -- from news environments (such as “Meet the Press” and “Hardball with Chris Matthews”) to silly comedy shows (“The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and “Saturday Night Live”).
Trump’s extreme level of comfort in the presence of cameras is not unlike Ronald Reagan’s -- one of the few similarities between the two. But Trump’s comfort level is even more amazing (to apply a word Trump loves using himself) when you consider that, unlike Reagan, Trump never had a career in TV or movies before he decided that being in front of TV cameras was where he wanted to be as often as possible.
Which brings me to “The Apprentice.” In the 10 months since Trump announced his candidacy for the presidency last June (in the speech in which he denounced Mexicans as rapists), much has been said about the importance of his now-former NBC reality series in making him a national media figure. It is hard to disagree that the show had an impact based on the simple equation: “Hit national TV show equals higher national profile.”
Some are saying Trump honed his media “skills” (such as they are) on “The Apprentice” and, these analyses continue, even learned fundamentals about campaigning and winning from his experience as the star and executive producer of this reality-competition show. He also honed his image, the analysts say, as a tough, no-nonsense “boss” who won’t hesitate to fire someone if they don’t perform to his high standards.
Never mind that the whole thing was a put-on, and that Trump’s antics in the “Apprentice” boardroom bore no similarity whatsoever to what happens in real boardrooms. What do people think he does in his real boardroom -- pit his underlings against each other and then fire one of them each week? Of course not.
Trump himself would likely be the first person to agree that what people became accustomed to seeing on “The Apprentice” should have no bearing on how they judge his qualifications for the presidency. He knows it was a “show” as opposed to reality. He likely views “The Apprentice” as another in a long line of successful business ventures he has been involved with, and he wouldn’t be wrong about that.
The fact is, Trump’s ease before the cameras, and his high profile, were both well-established by the time “The Apprentice” rolled around in January 2004. To some degree, the show was a late-in-life project for him. He was 58 when it premiered. While he may have learned a few things from the show, or possibly even built on his already considerable experience as a public figure, he was already fully formed as a media personality. It’s one reason why he succeeded as the star of the show, because he already knew how to comport himself on it.
By most accounts, given by those who worked with him then, there was no learning curve. On the contrary, Trump came on the show already in possession of all the talent necessary to be the lead character on the show. In a recent Variety story they recall with a sense of wonder his ability to complete unscripted scenes in one take.
So, was “The Apprentice” the springboard that made Donald Trump the media figure he is today? Well, it certainly didn’t hinder the process of building the Trump brand. But that process was already well underway for -- what? -- 20 years?
Trump Inc. has been a work in progress for a lot longer than reality TV has been around. “The Apprentice” was just another phase in the process -- just like his candidacy and, possibly, the presidency.