On September 20, 2004, the director of the Museum of Television & Radio in Los Angeles welcomed a packed crowd to an evening discussion “featuring the two people responsible for giving television audiences across America a mesmerizing cultural phenomenon. … Just having launched its second season, ‘The Apprentice’ promises once again to be the water-cooler show that has everybody talking.” The panelists on the stage were Donald Trump, the face of the show, and Mark Burnett, its maestro producer. And the moderator of the event, of note only because of the chucklehead-sidekick role he would play 12 years later during Trump’s presidential campaign, was “Access Hollywood” host Billy Bush.
“This show is amazing,” Bush said, cueing up a frenetic montage of highlights, in which Trump snarled, “This is a dictatorship, and I’m the dictator. There’s no voting. There’s no jury.” The audience clapped.
Most of the rest of the discussion was fawning and unsurprising until the 41-minute mark. That’s when Bush pointed out an uncomfortable numerical fact: Some 40 million people had watched parts of the first season finale. For the first episode of the second season, though, that number had plummeted. Barely one-third as many viewers tuned in. “Be honest with me,” Bush said to his guests. “Were you thinking to yourself,Oh, jeez?” He wondered if they were “nervous.”
Burnett, clad in sort of “Survivor” chic blue jeans, light blazer, shell necklace copped to some concern. “Hearing less than 20 million people,” Burnett told Bush, “pissed me off.”
Not Trump. What pissed him off was the question. Outfitted in his own uniform dark suit, white shirt, long tie—Trump gave a response as characteristic as his dress. He blamed having to go up against an NFL game. Bush pressed him, and Trump turned belligerent. “No excuse me,” he said, using a verbal stop sign he would make famous in debates and contentious TV interviews during his presidential campaign. Trump then unleashed a meandering, excuse-laden torrent that mentioned snow, golf and parents taking their kids to school. “So, I don’t know what the purpose of the question is,” he said.
The purpose of the question was to assess the staying power of public interest in Donald Trump. And though Bush could not have known it at the time, the drop-off he had identified would continue every season thereafter. “The Apprentice”was a hit right away, shockingly successful by anybody’s account but by the time of this panel discussion, barely into season two, it had already peaked. Interest in Trump’s show would never again approach its original heights.