TV maestro Donald Trump took his reality show to Cleveland

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

NEW YORK (AP) — Bluster and brutishness have long made a home on reality TV, including Donald Trump's former showcase.

But since relinquishing his "Celebrity Apprentice" post in exchange for the presidential bid he launched last summer, Trump has played a major role in importing the ruckus of reality TV and the headlines it generates to the political arena. The race Trump dominates and the coverage he amasses have seemed to take their cue from an episode of, well, "The Celebrity Apprentice."

This week, he took his all-too-real reality show to Cleveland for the Republication National Convention, where he was crowned the party's nominee for president.

But along the way what unfolded seemed a cavalcade of TV memes:

— A galaxy of distant stars (Scott Baio? Kimberlin Brown?) who seemed borrowed from some reality show.

— A summer rerun of passages from a Michelle Obama speech by would-be first lady Melania Trump.

— The obligatory catfight when convention speaker Texas Sen. Ted Cruz got booed for not endorsing Trump hours after Trump's plane buzzed his speech at a rally.

— Trump echoing a riff from "Game of Thrones'" Prince Oberyn Martell when, during his acceptance speech, he unleashed dire warnings of a nation on the brink, then thundered, "I will be your champion!"

Since gliding from above on a Trump Tower escalator to announce his candidacy, Trump has drawn from the playbook of reality TV as he defied seemingly every rule of politics.

In return, he scored astonishing success with viewers and TV outlets that embraced him as a "ratings bonanza" — his boast.

Trump is hardly the first candidate with show-biz sheen to enter politics. Those from the entertainment world who won office include Clint Eastwood, Sonny Bono, Jesse Ventura, Al Franken, Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, soon to be Trump's successor as "Apprentice" host.

But Trump is different. What Trump understands, and what fellow candidates were forced to reckon with, is television's appetite for raw sensation.

This applies in spades to cable news networks scrambling to fill gaping schedules with viewer-pleasing content. For the past 13 months, they've feasted on the spectacle of Trump. Long before the convention, thanks to Trump's debate and other campaign trail appearances, his clamored-for interviews and the hours of play-by-play analysis lavished on his candidacy by correspondents and commentators, he has represented a fire hose of TV content.

No wonder Trump, with the slash-and-burn style he has made savvy use of, became the main event for the political coverage that has swallowed cable news and held the audience in thrall. If the political race is a hot TV property, Trump more than anyone else deserves credit for closing that particular deal. And the networks, with his full participation, have made sure there's no shortage of him.

Although the Trump candidacy, even now, remains astonishing to some observers, his video chops never should have been in doubt.

"Apprentice" creator Mark Burnett said Trump had a media presence way before the show.

"If he wouldn't have had that, I wouldn't have cast him in the first place," Burnett said months ago.

Trump's TV appeal was certainly no mystery to Jeff Zucker, who in 2003 was entertainment president of NBC and snapped up the new project starring Trump and masterminded by Burnett, red-hot from "Survivor."

Now, as president of CNN Worldwide, Zucker, like his media rivals, is again cashing in on Trump.

Even before "The Apprentice" premiered in 2004, Trump was no stranger to TV. For instance, in just 10 days in May 1997 he was seen on his "Miss Universe Pageant" telecast on CBS and made sitcom cameo appearances as himself on NBC's "Suddenly Susan" and ABC's "The Drew Carey Show."

With his entry into politics, he has proved himself anew as must-see TV, a crossover artist who knew to intensify his message and harshen its delivery in service to a constituency only he seemed to detect.

Bent on the White House as his next acquisition, he has continued to dazzle with showmanship and fury as the shake-things-up star of this presidential reality show.

In a flash of self-effacement during a 2013 interview he said he went to "The Apprentice" unsure of its prospects. With show-biz, he declared, "You NEVER know what's gonna happen."

Unless, of course, you do.

"I DO have an instinct," he confided the next moment. "Oftentimes, I'll see shows go on and I'll say, 'That show will never make it,' and I'm always right. And I understand talent. Does anybody ask me? No. But if they did, I would be doing them a big service. I know what people want."

In any case, lots of people wanted "The Apprentice." In its first season, it averaged nearly 21 million viewers each week.

And while the Republican National Convention saw no major Trump bump in ratings — viewership for his acceptance speech was roughly 32.2 million, up from the 30.2 million who saw Mitt Romney speak at the convention four years ago — raw numbers don't tell the whole story.

Trump's presidential run has continued to electrify a nation of citizen-viewers. And this week marked the Trump brand's hugest TV showcase yet.


AP Television Writer Lynn Elber in Los Angeles contributed to this report.


EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at and at Past stories are available at