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The original idea of The Apprentice came to me while I was in the Amazon jungle making Survivor: Amazon, watching a bunch of ants devour a carcass. -MARK BURNETT
IN 1948 ALLEN FUNT, A GOOD-HUMORED BALD GUY WITH A VOYEUR'S love of the absurd, produced a new TV program for American airwaves. It was called Candid Microphone, and every Sunday night at eight o'clock on ABC it dished up foibles, embarrassments, unlikely scenarios, and gaffes that featured real people responding to unreal setups. A year later the program was renamed Candid Camera. It was America's first reality TV show.
Funt's crew secretly filmed unwitting people walking into the middle of bizarre, often hilarious, and relatively harmless situations-a visitor to an old-fashioned Automat would try to buy a sandwich from a hostile vending machine that talked back; a compact car would suck down oceans of fuel in front of a puzzled gas station attendant; a bowling ball would return to a confused bowler with its finger holes missing; dogs tried to pee on moving fire hydrants.
Candid Camera was unscripted, unrehearsed television, and the only actors were those helping to orchestrate the gags. The show bounced around various networks until finally hitting it big during a seven-year run on CBS in the 1960s. After unknowing participants had been duped, Funt clued in the human guinea pigs with a catchphrase that landed in the popular lexicon: "Smile, you're on Candid Camera!" Funt never pushed his stunts to the point of outright humiliation; Candid Camera's premise, and its relatively kitschy innocence, hinged on people laughing at themselves. The show's high jinks made it a prime-time hit, and it thrived for decades after its debut in syndication, specials, and remakes.
However popular Candid Camera may have been, though, it represented a genre-with the exception of a few popular shows like COPS, Real World, and America's Funniest Home Videos-that lay dormant on American prime-time television until the late 1990s. Then, stung by a loss of viewers and watercooler buzz to more innovative, more targeted, and more creatively unshackled cable operators, network television programmers revisited reality. The show that ushered in the new era in network programming debuted in the summer of 2000 on CBS, and it became a ratings powerhouse known as Survivor. By stranding contestants in punishing locales and pitting them against one another, Survivor attracted about fifty-one million viewers to its first-season finale and spawned a host of sequels and knockoffs including The Bachelor, American Idol, Fear Factor, and The Osbournes. Although as voyeuristic as any of its predecessors, Survivor's emotional traction was a far cry from the mild sandbox play of Candid Camera. It was meant to be provocative, Darwinian, and as riveting as a catty soap opera or a gripping serial novel; The Most Dangerous Game on steroids, unfolding weekly in your den, bedroom, and dorm. And Survivor was the brainchild of a former British paratrooper, skydiver, scuba diver, Beverly Hills nanny, and used-clothing salesman named Mark Burnett.
Burnett's unusual pedigree included dangerous firefights he was involved in during the British invasion of the Falkland Islands when he was only eighteen years old. "Real stuff," Burnett told The New York Times's television reporter, Bill Carter. "Horrific. But on the other hand, in a sick way, exciting."
After knocking about through a series of jobs in Los Angeles, Burnett's enthusiasm for the hair-raising and the physically challenging coalesced into his first successful TV pitch, Eco-Challenge, an outdoor competition show first broadcast in 1995-a show Burnett, who had no television experience, landed on the tube through sheer persistence and that became famous for the episode in which a leech squirmed into one contestant's urethra.
About four years of relentless door knocking, and ample inspiration from British reality shows that were already hits, also preceded Survivor's sale to CBS in 2000. But after Burnett launched Survivor into the ratings stratosphere, he had his pick of prime time openings waiting to be filled. His slate would come to include Combat Missions, a show featuring former army and navy commandos rescuing hostages; Destination Space, an astronaut bake-off in which the winner gets catapulted, like a commando, aboard a rocket to a space station; The Restaurant, a behind-the-scenes look at the kitchen and business of a Manhattan bistro, where the chef-owner was a culinary commando; The Contender, a reality boxing show co-produced by movie commando and pugilist Sylvester Stallone; and a scripted comedy called, inevitably, Commando Nanny.
But the most popular show Burnett produced other than Survivor was The Apprentice, and the cult status it immediately achieved when it first aired in early 2004 illustrated Burnett's ability to stir up viewers' anxieties-whether about being torn up in the jungle or torn up in the workplace. The Apprentice also showed that Burnett, a British immigrant who was the son of factory workers, had a grasp of the personalities that held sway in the American imagination, a sensibility that came straight out of his own experience.
"I came here with nothing, with maybe a hundred bucks in my pocket and had to get a job," Burnett recalled. "And these wealthy people who had made their money themselves, I worked for. It did show me what could be achieved in America, what's possible if you have some vision to take big risks. And I always wanted to do a show that was about entrepreneurialism. It led on, quite frankly, to The Apprentice, where a bunch of people, I wasn't sure how many at the time, would vie to be the apprentice of a master of industry. I knew clearly there was only one master who was colorful enough, charismatic enough, who is really a billionaire, was Trump.
"But also, what an intimidating guy to interview with and I thought: 'How about a 13-week televised job interview to be Trump's apprentice, six-figure salary, and be president of one of his companies.' It just clicked."
Burnett, a showman who donned a brown felt Akubra, a la Indiana Jones, reveled in the Trumpster zeitgeist. During his long-gone days of scrambling for a buck selling T-shirts on Venice Beach, Burnett devoured a little tome called The Art of the Deal, and he credited its author, Donald, with inspiring his own business ventures.
"He's a regular guy who speaks his mind, who goes against the establishment all the time," Burnett said of Donald. "He's sued New York how many times, and won? This is a brilliant businessman that stands for what is great about our country, what makes America the best country in the world.
"He loves business and loves to orate about business. He always tells me: 'You know where the real jungle is? Manhattan, New York City. That's my jungle and that's the real jungle, Burnett. There's more snakes here and more things that can kill ya here than any jungle in the world.'"
Burnett and Donald met face-to-face for the first time in early 2002, after Burnett asked Donald if he could use the Wollman Skating Rink in Central Park to stage a Survivor episode. A year later, with visions of the "Sorcerer's Apprentice" episode from the Disney film Fantasia in his head, Burnett decided to pitch Donald on the idea of doing a reality television show together. In early 2003, after preparing spreadsheets and schedules outlining what would become The Apprentice, Burnett phoned Donald from his car on his way into Manhattan from the airport. He asked Donald if he had time for a meeting the following week. Donald suggested he come over right away. About forty-five minutes after Burnett arrived at Trump Tower, the two men agreed to try to sell a reality show together to the networks.
Burnett pitched The Apprentice to the four major networks and wound up with CBS and NBC as final bidders. Jeff Zucker, a thirty-eight-year-old programming whiz who began his career overseeing a revival of the Today show before being given responsibility for all of NBC's television holdings, led the negotiations for the network. Desperate to find a replacement show for Friends to anchor the lucrative Thursday-night lineup he and NBC had built around the sitcom, Zucker reeled in The Apprentice.
Donald said that ABC missed out on The Apprentice because the network tried to get the show cheaply. "What happened is, instead of saying, Yes, we want to do it, they started to chisel. Instead of offering the $2 million a show that was necessary to do because of production value-that Mark really wanted and I knew nothing about because I am not in that world, he said you need like $2 million a show-they said, 'We'll give you $1.7 million.' Mark then went to the other networks; they all wanted it. He went to NBC and Jeff Zucker actually locked the group in the room until they signed it.
"They locked the door. They took out a pencil or a pen, made the changes in pencil and a pen. I don't even think there were even lawyers. Like the old days when I used to do real estate deals in Brooklyn. You would be afraid you would lose the deal so you would sit a guy in a room and say, 'Cross off that word.'"
Burnett said that he and his partner had to do a little bit of convincing to get the broadcasting executives to play ball.
"All of the networks wondered if anyone outside New York really cared about Trump and would it work, but I had a track record and I stuck by my guns," Burnett told me. "I believed in the format and I don't think they understood how well Trump would telegraph across the screen-and how his take-no-prisoners approach appealed to people all over the world. So they bought it."
For his part, Zucker said he was determined to snare The Apprentice from the get-go, and, like Donald, said that he locked Burnett in a room at NBC and wouldn't let him leave the negotiating table until they had a deal. Zucker also had no doubts about Donald's broader appeal beyond New York.
"I'm a New Yorker, I come from New York, I was aware of Donald and all of the publicity he attracts, and that he was a character, and I knew immediately that I wanted to do the show," Zucker told me. "I was not worried about how well it would play outside of New York. I knew that Donald was universal. He's the quintessential made-in-America story: He's been up, he's been down, he's been back up again."
Although Donald was the inspiration for The Apprentice, Burnett was its architect. He brought Donald aboard as executive producer and split international licensing rights and ownership of The Apprentice brand with him. Donald made $50,000 an episode to showcase his one-of-a-kind, carnivalesque traits: the High Plains Drifter glower, the eyebrows that wandered around his forehead like fuzzy Slinkies, the bicycle-helmet hairdo, the toughest-guy-in-the-bar swagger, the Day-Glo silk ties, and, above all, his unfailing, spot-on assessments of contestants' strengths and weaknesses-and an unflinching willingness to say exactly what every viewer was already thinking about the ambitious, conniving, befuddled, and aspiring apprentices. Donald, as ringmaster and court jester, was channeling America.
Around all of this, Burnett had a very specific, opera bouffe narrative in mind. "The philosophy of Survivor is to build a world and destroy exactly what you've built for personal gain, and The Apprentice is a kingdom: I've taken a castle and a throne, and the king (Trump) is saying, 'Off with your head,'" Burnett noted. Contestants, he added, are "so drawn to the horror of being excluded, of being killed, it's magnetic. What's really interesting about these types of shows is they're unpredictable, but in a very familiar setting."
At the time that Burnett hoisted Donald into The Apprentice's firmament, Donald was, more or less, a down-on-his-luck real estate promoter with a failing casino company whose mantra and appetites appeared to be stuck in a Reagan-era time warp. The Cheshire Cat of the business world, Donald had watched many of the assets he assembled a decade earlier evaporate around him until all that was left was a mesmeric, well-known name. He had morphed into "Trump," the human marquee. But The Apprentice rescued him from all of that.
Season One of The Apprentice kicked off in bravura, tele-novella fashion with Donald-in his limo! in his chopper!-reintroducing himself to America.
"New York, my city, where the wheels of the global economy never stop turning, a concrete metropolis of unparalleled strength and purpose that drives the business world," he said in the show's introduction as the camera raced across the Hudson River and then swooped and nose-dived around Manhattan's granite-and-glass canyons. "If you're not careful, it can chew you up and spit you out. But if you work hard you can really hit it big. And I mean really big.
"My name is Donald Trump and I'm the largest real estate developer in New York. I own buildings all over the place, model agencies, the Miss Universe Pageant, jetliners, golf courses, casinos, and private resorts like Mar-a-Lago, one of the most spectacular estates anywhere in the world," he added. "But it wasn't always so easy. About thirteen years ago I was in serious trouble. I was billions of dollars in debt. But I fought back and won-big league. I used my brain. I used my negotiating skills. And I worked it all out. Now my company is bigger than it ever was and stronger than it ever was and I'm having more fun than I ever had.
"I've mastered the art of the deal and I've turned the name Trump into the highest-quality brand. And as the master I want to pass my knowledge along to somebody else. I'm looking for [pregnant pause] ... The Apprentice." Cue Olympian music as Donald's helicopter banked steeply, tipping its rotors in a salute to the Big Apple.
Donald's Apprentice intro was laced with a number of howlers. By most reasonable measures, for example, Donald was not remotely close to being the largest real estate developer in New York, and his loose collection of cash-poor assets did not approximate the value of what he was juggling at the top of his game in the late 1980s. But The Apprentice presented our hero at full, rat-a-tat tilt, and he exploited the opportunity with singular gusto. The show also managed to lend Donald a patina of corporate grandiosity. The Apprentice's woody, dark Fortune 500 boardroom, for example, bore little resemblance to the Trump Organization's actual office space on the twenty-sixth floor of Trump Tower. The real thing was a tad run-down and worn, surprisingly vacant, ornamented with Lucite chandeliers, maroon-velvet chairs, cushy pod furniture, and other decor that smacked of a JFK Airport lounge, circa 1970. The Trump Organization's boardroom on The Apprentice, on the other hand, was all shadow, anxiety, and financial power, an inner sanctum where final reckonings occurred.
As The Apprentice rolled out its contestants, instantly handicapping them proved irresistible. Troy seemed to be a rube, an unwary lamb quick to the slaughter. Bill had the look and voice of a Chicago Bears fan. How could he win? Kristi was statuesque, well spoken, and aggressive. Maybe. Omarosa was statuesque, well spoken, and aggressive. Maybe. Kwame was smooth, smart, handsome. A shoe-in. And Sam. Gee, Sam looked very wired and springy. Interesting. Amy was polished and confident and blond. Possibly. Nick had a husky voice matched with a Baby Huey face. No way. There was a Rainbow Coalition on the show that included two African Americans, an Asian American woman, college grads, someone who had been in a soft-core porn film, somebody who never made it past high school, women, men, lots of Type A's, and lots of possibilities for conflict and very non-PC infighting. And almost all the instant handicapping (at least mine) proved to be shallow, superficial, and wrong.
Even Donald admitted to having unfounded doubts about the star power of some of his contestants, especially Omarosa Manigault Stallworth, an African American woman who bared her self-absorption, claws, and accusations of racism to great effect.
"I didn't think she had it. But she was great casting," Donald said of Stallworth. "We didn't know she was the Wicked Witch until the audience found she was the Wicked Witch. We had an idea but you never know how it is going to be picked up."
Excerpted from TrumpNation by Timothy L. O'Brien Copyright © 2005 by Timothy L. O'Brien.
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