Will Donald Trump’s Bad Behavior Hurt The Apprentice Franchise?

Spotlight turns on NBC’s reboot

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During NBCUniversal's upfront presentation in May, NBC unveiled its first look at the Donald Trump-free Celebrity Apprentice, now hosted by Arnold Schwarzenegger and retitled The New Celebrity Apprentice. The footage ended with the actor astride a steed, urging the show's new contestants, "Now, let's get down to business!"—the same phrase he used in his pitch to media buyers.

That could be easier said than done when the franchise returns after nearly a two-year hiatus on Jan. 2.

NBC severed ties with Trump in June 2015 following his derogatory comments about immigrants and brought Schwarzenegger on as the show's new "CEO" that September. (See our story about the career and accomplishments of Schwarzenegger, this year's Adweek Brand Visionary, here.)

However, the show has been subject to a fresh round of Trump-related controversy that could disrupt the network's efforts to relaunch the brand.

After the recent revelation of a 2005 Access Hollywood recording of Trump and then-host Billy Bush's lewd banter about women, Apprentice creator Mark Burnett issued two separate statements distancing himself from Trump's behavior and explaining why he was unable to release unused footage from the show that could shed further light on Trump's treatment of women.

Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger issued a statement of his own, via Twitter, in which he wrote that he would not vote for the Republican presidential candidate "for the first time since I became a citizen in 1983."

During last week's final presidential debate, Hillary Clinton mentioned Celebrity Apprentice several times, noting that Trump's talk of a "rigged" election echoes his reaction when the show was snubbed at the Emmy Awards.

Now NBC, which has spent the past year trying to distance the Apprentice franchise from the man who hosted it for 14 seasons, could find itself back at square one.

"Whenever you have a celebrity that's so intertwined with a particular brand or show, it's very difficult to decouple those things. In people's minds, and Hillary continued to cement it during the debate, the whole Celebrity Apprentice franchise is associated with Donald Trump," said Mimi Chakravorti, senior director of strategy at Landor.

NBC would not comment on the record, but denied a Hollywood Reporter story claiming that the network may be reevaluating its Celebrity Apprentice plans, possibly even delaying the show.

So far, the network has not deviated from its marketing plan around Celebrity Apprentice. Promos started running during the Summer Olympics, and the campaign will ramp up in November.

It's business as usual for buyers, too. "I don't feel like it has a Trump halo to it, just like the [Miss USA and Miss Universe] pageants," which Trump is also no longer involved with, said Carrie Drinkwater, svp, group director of investment activation at Mediahub. "If Trump was hosting it, absolutely, I think people would be pulling out left and right."

Drinkwater noted that several TV actors have been politically active in this election season without suffering defections from audiences or advertisers.

"When you look at prime-time entertainment, not news, you have to take the political bias out and participate in a show, if you feel that would resonate with your brand and help to elevate your business," she said. "So I think it's a nonfactor." According to NBCUniversal, upfront and scatter interest in Celebrity Apprentice is as strong as ever.

Still, Chakravorti said that NBC and Burnett will need to prove to the public that the show has changed beyond just its title.

"If you define your brand by a personality, you live and die by the actions of that personality," she said. "So what they're going to need to do is not necessarily make Arnold the new Donald, but redefine what Celebrity Apprentice is and why we should be watching."

This story first appeared in the October 24, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.

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@jasonlynch jason.lynch@adweek.com Jason Lynch is TV/Media Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.