TV Query: How involved will President Trump be in 'The New Celebrity Apprentice'?
Variety broke the news on Dec. 8 that President-elect Donald Trump will retain his executive producer credit on "The New Celebrity Apprentice," the NBC reality show developed by Mark Burnett in 2004. Trump has hosted all 14 seasons of "The Apprentice," both original formula and celebrity version, until NBC severed ties with him in 2015 after his controversial remarks about Mexican immigrants.
Arnold Schwarzenegger is the new host, as the show moves to California, and Trump is poised to become the 45th president of the United States on Jan. 20, 2017.
So the questions are -- just how involved will Trump be in producing the reality show? And what conflict of interest does this present for Trump and/or "The Apprentice's" parent company NBCUniversal?
The answer to the first question is "not at all."
First of all, the new season of "The Apprentice" wrapped back in spring 2016, NBC confirms to Screener. So the show has long been in the can and Trump was not involved in any way, as he was busy campaigning for president.
Some confusion around this point arose when Trump's campaign manager Kellyanne Conway defended her boss' EP credit, telling CNN that "presidents have a right to do things in their spare time," implying that he could somehow work on a television show while being president and likening it to President Obama playing golf while president.
While Conway is correct in saying that presidents do have some time for leisure and can't be all work and no play, Trump was quick to assure the American public that he will not be devoting any time to "The Celebrity Apprentice," since producing a television program is obviously much more involved than playing a few rounds of golf.
Furthermore, while the EP credit may have alarmed those outside the television industry, people who work in TV know that the title of executive producer can be just that -- a title.
Oftentimes stars of TV shows are named executive producers because it gives them an important title, a producing credit and more money. Conversely, bigger names, like J.J. Abrams or Steven Spielberg, are sometimes named as executive producers to give a TV series more weight, even if they aren't all that involved in the actual production of the show.
In Trump's case, he was named executive producer because he helped develop the show alongside Burnett, so it gave him recognition and a paycheck on top of what he would have received as only being the host of the program.
Conflicts of Interest
As to the second question, about whether this creates any conflicts of interest for Trump and/or NBCUniversal, the answer is yes -- but a very different-sized yes depending on which party you're talking about.
For Trump, since the title is strictly ceremonial and he's being paid by the production company, MGM Television, chances are he'll simply continue to receive his paycheck and that'll be the end of it.
Trump could conceivably barter for "The Apprentice's" renewal with NBCUniversal's many news organization's access to his administration, but ratings for the "The Celebrity Apprentice" have always been solid -- save one anomalous season in 2013 that wasn't quite as strong. For now, NBC should have no trouble deciding to renew the show all on its own, unless for some reason Ahnold's version tanks. This is more of a "wait and see" conflict of interest.
But for NBCUniversal, the problem is much larger.
NBC wants "The Celebrity Apprentice" to be a success, regardless of whether Trump has an EP credit or not -- because all networks want their shows to be successful. It means more ad revenue.
But because NBC wants "The Apprentice" to be successful, it has a stake in wanting to protect the president's reputation, which is a problem for a news organization that should be covering Trump from an objective, journalistic standpoint. How can a news organization effectively cover someone its parent company has a financial stake in?
An issue like this already arose during the campaign. NBC reportedly sat on the footage of Trump laughing about sleeping with a married woman and committing sexual assault with "Access Hollywood" host Billy Bush for several days, having it vetted by lawyers for fear of legal action from Trump.
The network was ultimately scooped by the Washington Post, who received the tape anonymously and vetted the story within hours. But at the time, NBC had had the story for days and still had not scheduled it to air.
What if something like this arises when Trump is the sitting president? Will NBC sit on the story until it can get its ducks in a row regarding its "Apprentice" interests? That's problematic for a news organization, to say the least.
What can NBC do?
So, what can NBCUniversal do about the conflict of interest? Probably nothing.
Since Trump's EP credit has most likely been part of his contract since the beginning, there is not much NBC or MGM Television can do to remove Trump without wading into what would surely turn into a huge legal battle.
The only person here who could eliminate this particular conflict is Trump himself, by choosing to divest from the show and eschew any credits and payments he is entitled to. But considering that Trump is already having trouble divesting from his other, much larger conflicts of interest, it seems unlikely that he is going to fire himself.
Trump had been planning on holding a press conference Thursday (Dec. 15), his first since July, to address his plans for his various conflicts of interest stemming from his business holdings, but has now rescheduled the press conference for sometime in January.