By Frances Stead Sellers
In his debut as the CEO on “The Apprentice,” Donald Trump wanted to move fast. He seemed to know in his gut which contestant should be fired and saw little reason to prolong the filming.
But there was a problem. Even if an immediate ouster might be smart in an actual corporate boardroom, it did not make for compelling television.
So when filming began for the 2004 launch of the show, producers asked the famously impatient real estate mogul to slow down, according to Jim Dowd, who was NBC’s senior director of publicity. Trump needed to let the drama play out between the contestants — aspiring young businesspeople who were battling for the grand prize of a one-year, $250,000 job by performing a series of tasks that Trump assigned.
Trump appeared to act on the advice. On Episode 3 of the first season, he spun one contestant’s slow demise into a dramatic climax — the contestant’s crazed stare — that became an overnight TV sensation and helped propel the show into a ratings goliath. Over time, the show became known for the way contestants would create alliances and belittle each other before Trump picked one and delivered the decisive blow: “You’re fired!”
“If nobody had stepped up” and given Trump the guidance, “ ‘The Apprentice’ wouldn’t be what it was today,” said Dowd, who left NBC to run a public relations firm where he has represented Trump. “And I don’t think Trump would be as sharp.”
Today, as a Republican presidential candidate, Trump emphasizes his success in the real estate business as he makes the case that he can fix a broken Washington. But it is the abilities he practiced over 14 seasons as the host and an executive producer of “The Apprentice” — a blunt speaking style, a tendency to taunt his rivals and play them against each other, and a theatrical sense of timing — that have flustered rivals who at times can’t seem to believe that they are losing to him.
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