I used to think that nobody was more obsessed with TV than I am. But I underestimated Donald Trump.
The current occupant of the White House went around the bend yet again earlier this week when he tweeted a video of former Vice President Joe Biden — deceptively edited to make Biden look bad — along with what Trump believed was a strong attack on his Democratic foe: “Is this what you want for your President??? With no ratings, media will go down along with our great USA!”
Because Trump thinks that TV ratings are a prerequisite to be president of the United States. He doesn’t understand that train-wreck TV draws viewers, while many quality shows have not. He thinks the ability to draw viewers is more important than the ability to actually do the job.
Remember, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic as tens of thousands died, Trump bragged about the ratings of his daily briefings — which he quit giving as ratings declined.
And, given his unceasing attacks on reporters, does anyone believe Trump is worried the “media will go down”?
Of course Trump attaches huge importance to TV. It is what put him in the White House.
In 2004, Trump was a failed businessman who suffered bankruptcy after bankruptcy and stiffed an enormous number of people to whom he owed money. And then in January 2008, “The Apprentice” debuted on NBC and created a false image that Trump was a tough, successful businessman.
Why did NBC buy the show?
“I understood who and what Donald Trump was,” said Jeff Zucker, the then-CEO of NBC Universal. “I understood that he was just a one-man, wrecking, publicity machine. And even if the show wasn’t good, he was going to say it was good. Even if the ratings weren’t good, he was going to say they were great. Nobody could generate publicity like Donald Trump.”
Zucker made those comments in an appearance at Drexel University eight years ago — long before anyone thought Trump would be elected president.
(Trump has long claimed that “The Apprentice” was No. 1 in the ratings, and it was — one week in 2004. It was a genuine hit in Season 1, finishing No. 7 overall and averaging 20.7 million viewers. But it steadily declined, falling to 11th, 15th and 38th over the next three seasons and losing 47% of its viewers. It was never higher than No. 46 in any subsequent season. The show bottomed out at No. 113 in Season 10, averaging just 4.7 million viewers. And Trump kept saying it was No. 1.)
I’m no fan of Zucker’s. He drove the ratings and the quality of once-proud NBC into the ground — from first to last in the ratings. “The Apprentice” proved to be the only successful show he bought as NBC’s top programmer. But Zucker proved to be absolutely correct about Trump.
As I’ve written before, Trump has a long history of lying about TV ratings. Two years before he was inaugurated, Trump lied repeatedly about “Celebrity Apprentice” ratings to a room full of TV critics — asserting it was No. 1 — and we laughed.
As obsessed as the president remains with TV, he’s never taken the time to understand it or get his facts straight. Earlier this month, he criticized NASCAR’s decision to ban Confederate flags and insisted that it “has caused lowest ratings EVER!”
That was 100% wrong. NASCAR ratings are actually up over last year since the flag was banned.
One of the ironies here is that Zucker is now the president of CNN, and both he and his news channel are continual targets of Trump’s insults and scorn — even though Zucker is directly responsible for giving Trump the platform that set him on the path to the White House. Under Zucker’s leadership, CNN gave Trump blanket coverage during the 2016 election — carrying umpteen of his campaign events live without fact checks. CNN alone isn’t responsible for putting Trump in the Oval Office, but it certainly helped.
I don’t believe it ever entered Zucker’s mind in 2004 that Trump would run for president. I don’t think Zucker believed Trump could win when he directed CNN to give him some much airtime.
But I do wonder if the fact that he has some direct responsibility for the Trump presidency ever keeps Zucker up at night.