Trump’s Reality Show Has Peaked

I suppose this was inevitable. The President-Elect, our reality star-in-chief, lashed out against the show that built his celebrity and the network that sustained his brand for nearly a decade.


This shouldn’t be surprising. This is what Trump does. He uses Twitter to distract us from all the other messes he is causing. To distract us from Putin and Russia. But the PEOTUS mocked Celebrity Apprentice for low ratings reveals how Trump is utterly delusional. Here is why:

In the early-2000s, reality television exploded. These shows were inexpensive to produce, merged real life, entertainment and commercialism, and capitalized on emerging digital technologies. I remember watching the first season finale of Survivor with my parents (the “Rat and Snake” speech is classic television) and feeling like this was a huge moment that millions of people were invested in. (51.69 million viewers watched this episode.) While reality television was not unprecedented, everything about the genre was suddenly bigger. Both the sheer quantity of new shows and the size of the media personalities behind them. Reality TV has since evolved from a fad to a ubiquitous genre.

Two favorite pieces in 2016 tackled Trump and the role his celebrity . Ira Madison of MTV looked at how The Apprentice was purely an advertisement for the Trump Empire. Anne Helen Petersen of Buzzfeed tackled the facets of Trump’s celebrity and why he must be analyzed as a celebrity, not a politician. Both pieces provide excellent context for the Trump reality show we are now living in. (Also read this piece about Mark Burnett and Trump on The Ringer.)

The reality genre crafted around the ideas of voyeurism. Audiences tune in to reality series because it so unlike what they experience in their own lives. (Are you an Alaskan fisherman? Why are you watching The Deadliest Catch?) Eventually all reality shows reach their expiration date. This is especially true of the game-doc series which become repetitive season after season.

So the classic game-docs still airing – Survivor, The Bachelor, The Amazing Race, MTV’s The Challenge – are their respective network’s key reality programs. Each show has tie-ins with tabloids, aftershows, podcasts, social media, etc. Their cast members become network personalities (this is particularly true of The Bachelor/The Bachelorette and The Challenge, which sees the cast members return for spinoff after spinoff.) And so, these shows depend on spectacle through casting to sustain their ratings and their brands.

Popular reality shows are also easily derailed by scandal. TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting is my standard example for this argument. For more than a decade, the Duggars were provided a platform to present and normalize their unorthodox family structure and extreme Evangelical beliefs. 19 Kids was TLC’s longest running and highest rated program. This lasted until the scandal forced TLC to cancel 19 Kids. TLC has since launched a Duggars spin-off, Counting On (centered around the Duggars 2.0) but this series is no where near as popular as the original series. It never will be.

Back to Donald Trump and The Apprentice – On The Apprentice, Donald Trump was the spectacle. Audiences loved watching him in this element and delivering the catchphrase “You’re Fired!” Sure, Ivanka was there but this entire program was built around Donald’s showmanship.

Donald Trump is a spectacle.  He always has been. Neal Gabler, writing in 1998, explains that Trump’s blockbuster was so good that not even failure (his bankruptcies, his divorce from Ivana) could close it.

The second Trump announced his candidacy, the 2016 Presidential Election became the most surreal media spectacle of all-time.

Now that Trump is the President-Elect, his reality show has peaked. It has peaked because audiences have caught on to the gimmick. We know he is distracting us and gaslighting America.

And so, Donald Trump is the scandal most likely to bring down his own celebrity and the empire he built. People are not watching Celebrity Apprentice because Arnold Schwarzenegger is a failed movie star. People are not watching Celebrity Apprentice because they are tired of the Trump brand. And it is better to focus on derailing an unstable President-Elect by doing what he hates most: ignore him and deny him the satisfaction that you are watching.

(Hi, yes, my long hiatus is over. I plan on blogging from time to time. Periodic posts will follow.)