Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Did The Apprentice Kill NBC?

He's plague, he's smallpox, he's typhoid. I don't want to follow his goddamn show. I want out of that 8 o'clock spot. I've got enough troubles without Howard Beale as a lead-in. You guys scheduled me up against "Tony Orlando and Dawn," NBC's got "Little House on the Prairie," ABC's got "The Bionic Woman". You've gotta do something. You've gotta do something about Howard Beale. [Maureen Warfield as Laureen Hobbes, the reality show terrorist in Network, Paddy Chayefsky, 1976]

Peter Finch as Howard Beale, Network, 1976.

Sometimes I get myself involved in stupid projects. Recently I mused—and it must have been musing because I certainly wasn't thinking—why not look at the ratings of the television show, The Apprentice, to see what they really were? Trump makes up numbers about everything else, why not the foundation of his recent popularity?

The undertaking proved to be brutal. The problem I ran into: there are so many episodes. And the puns used as episode titles, the awful puns, not just for The Apprentice, but for the competition and lead-ins. I may have permanent brain damage.

I put together an Excel file of the ratings, the share and the viewer statistics as reported at TV Tango for each episode of The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice, for the competition in the time slot, and for the shows leading into The Apprentice and following. 

Along the way, I came to the conclusion that not only was The Apprentice often terrible in ratings, but that it may well have destroyed NBC. Perhaps this is why Trump wants to cut back on the EPA. The toxic waste sludge of The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice should have been declared a Superfund site.

So, why do I say that The Apprentice killed NBC?  My evidence for this comes in four parts.

  1. NBC took a steep and lasting nosedive beginning the year The Apprentice debuted.
  2. Although it had the illusion of popularity at the beginning, The Apprentice was never popular. 
  3. The Apprentice gobbled up the best time spots and was the low moment in ratings between those who filled the lead-in and those which came after.
  4. Popular shows which were used as lead-ins and those which followed The Apprentice suffered.

Update on this post: The Curse of The Apprentice.

NBC, Before and After.

Once upon a time, NBC dominated Thursday nights with its generation-defining sitcoms. Starting in the mid-eighties with The Cosby Show, Family Ties and Cheers and continuing with Seinfeld, Frasier, and Friends, NBC kicked ass with its ratings. Then in 2004, Friends came to end and the cowbird, The Apprentice, came to nest.

From the television years 1984-1985 to 2003-2004, NBC averaged 3.55 top ten TV shows on Thursday evening alone. Every year, for twenty years they had at least one.

NBC, Thursday nights. (Years on Thursday nights)
List of NBC Thursday night programs with multiple years in the top 10 Nielsen ratings, 1984-2004.
  • Cheers: (1982-1993) 7 years, top 5. 1 year, #1.
  • Family Ties: (1984-1987) 3 years, top 5.
  • The Cosby Show: (1984-1992) 7 years, top 5. 5 years, #1.
  • A Different World: (1987-1993) 4 years, top 5.
  • Seinfeld: (1989-1998) 5 years, top 5, 2 years, #1.
  • Frasier: (1993-2000) 4 years, top 10.
  • ER: (1994-2009) First 10 years, top 10, 3 years #1.
  • Friends: (1994-2004) All 10 years, top 10, 1 year #1.
  • Veronica's Closet (1997-1999) 2 years, top 5.
Others had a single year in the top 10.

Beginning with the year 2004-2005 and through 2015-2016, NBC has never had a top ten TV show on Thursday, in fact, it has only had three top ten shows period: Sunday Night Football, The Voice and The Blacklist.

How did NBC fall so hard, so fast? The Apprentice debuted on a Thursday in 2004.

Top Ranked TV show, NBC. (Beginning with the year after the advent of The Apprentice, 2004)
  • 2004-2005 ER #12
  • 2005-2006 Deal or No Deal #15 (Monday)
  • 2006-2007 Deal or No Deal #13 (Monday)
  • 2007-2008 Sunday Night Football #10. Otherwise: Heroes, #22.
  • 2008-2009 Sunday Night Football #8. Otherwise: ER #26 (tied with Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.)
  • 2009-2010 Sunday Night Football #5. Otherwise: The Biggest Loser #30.
  • 2010-2011: Sunday Night Football # 4. Otherwise: The Voice, #17.
  • 2011-2012: Sunday Night Football #1. Otherwise: The Voice, #10.
  • 2012-2013: Sunday Night Football #2. Otherwise: The Voice, #10.
  • 2013-2014: Sunday Night Football #1. Otherwise: The Blacklist, #6; The Voice #8, The Voice, Tuesday #10.
    • Four top 10 shows! Note: in 2013-2014, for the first time in ten years, there was not an incarnation of The Apprentice on TV.
  • 2014-2015: Sunday Night Football #1. Otherwise: The Blacklist, #12. 
  • 2015-2016: Sunday Night Football #2. Otherwise: The Voice, Monday, #9.
For the fall-half of the television year Sunday Night Football did well

Intermission: A Brief Note on Ratings.

Different sources give what are usually slightly different rankings to television shows. In part this is based on whether they are citing ratings, total viewers, viewers in specific categories, whether they include or exclude reruns, etc. I will mainly focus on total viewers.

Sunday Night Football, although a bona fide hit, was only in the fall season and provided no lead-in or support for other shows the same night.

The above rankings are for the year. Time-slot rankings, which I will discuss below, are how well a program does compared to its competition during the time in which it is scheduled. In general, this ranking will be between 1 and 4 (NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox) from 8 until 10 pm at which time Fox signs off and the ranking becomes 1 to 3. The minor networks such as CW never competed with the above four. On rare occasions, although more frequently recently, cable TV has competed. Sometimes The Apprentice was scheduled at a time in which it came in behind historically high-rated cable shows including the final season of The Sopranos and two seasons of The Walking Dead. On one occasion, The Celebrity Apprentice ranked 6th in a portion of its time slot. Most cable programs, even those widely talked about such as Mad Men, ranked below the network offerings.

The Apprentice Was Never That Popular - The Debut.

The Apprentice debuted at the tail end of NBC's dominance. It was given a primo debut spot, between Friends, the #4 show and ER the #6 show of the 2003-2004 season. Not only were both of these shows popular in 2004, both were on a ten-year run of consecutive years in the top ten. The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946-Present maintains a ranking of the most popular TV shows of all time. ER ranks #6 and Friends #14.

That spot in the Thursday line-up was golden. It could launch successful series and it could make forgettable series look successful. Do people even remember Boston Commons, The Single Guy, or Union Square (The #8-rated shows, of 1995, 1996, and 1997, respectively)? How about Fired Up, the 6th-rated show in 1997? All of these achieved a nova-burst moment of popularity because they were sandwiched in the NBC Thursday night line-up. They succeeded because of position, position, position. And this happened with The Apprentice in its first outing. It came in #5 in ratings for its first season, but as I describe below, it hardly ever won its time slot. And, in following seasons, in spite of throwing good shows in to prop it up, it dog-paddled along, barely peeking above the waterline.

The Apprentice was Fired Up and Boston Commons. It was a show propped up to look good in the ratings, but no more.

Let's look at how the debut episode of The Apprentice did.
The Apprentice debuted with a 90-minute episode. The # indicates ranking in time slot.

Seven million viewers tuned out when the episode of Friends finished and The Apprentice began. Fortunately for NBC, four million viewers returned when The Apprentice ended and ER started. The Apprentice did win the first thirty minutes of its time slot when its primary competition was in reruns. Even winning part of a time slot rarely occurred in its long history (more on that below)

A brief counter-argument in favor of the popularity of its first season. The Apprentice was supported by a lead-in of Friends on four more occasions during its first season and by a lead-in of Will & Grace nine times. Will & Grace was not the same powerhouse (ranked #11 in the year before The Apprentice) as Friends, and on two occasions, the lead-in program was in reruns. On three occasions the following show was in reruns and twice they were specials. Factoring in this, we get this overall picture of ratings for the first season. Lead-in, average number of viewers: 18.79 million; Following total: 17.83; The Apprentice: 20.3 million. Reruns are a two-edged sword. The Apprentice had a higher audience because it never ran reruns. On the other side of the blade, The Apprentice could never provide reruns to fill out the program schedule.

The Apprentice was never that popular: a global perspective.

During Trump's tenure there were 102 episodes of The Apprentice and 83 episodes of Celebrity Apprentice. These were spread out over 14 roughly four-month-long seasons. So, how often did The Apprentice and Celebrity win their complete time spots? On six occasions, four times in its first season.

The Apprentice winning its time slot.

  • March 18, 2004. Reason: Main competitor pre-empted by NCAA Basketball.
  • March 25, 2004. Reason: Main competitor pre-empted by NCAA Basketball.
  • April 8, 2004. Reason: Main competitor in re-runs.
  • April 15, 2004. Finale first season wins against all competitors. (no reruns, strong showing)
  • March 17, 2005. Reason: Main competitor pre-empted by NCAA Basketball.
  • March 27, 2006. Reason: Main competitor pre-empted by NCAA Basketball.

As for winning even a slice of its time slot, (e.g., 30 minutes) that occurred on seven more occasions. And that's it. Over 14 seasons The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice, even against its reruns and sometimes weak-ass competition, managed only 13 wins or partial wins out of 185 episodes and most of those came in the first season. The Apprentice scored so poorly, that even against two or three competitors, it managed to lose.

The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice compared to its lead-in, follow-up program and leader of the time slot.

The Apprentice continued on Thursday night for three more seasons through December of 2005. Its viewership declined from 16.1 million in its second season to 11 million in its fourth season. In its fourth season it averaged about 40% of the number of viewers of the program leading its time slot.

After having destroyed NBC on Thursday nights, in season five, The Apprentice moved to Mondays.


Disaster struck. Not only could Jack Bauer not rescue Trump, he was part of the competition. The Apprentice regularly scored fourth place out of the four major network shows, falling below Two and Half Men, 24 (in its 5th season), and for half of its episodes, Supernanny.

The lead-in to The Apprentice, Deal or No Deal, was popular, #15 rated overall and the #1 show for the week of its finale which preceded The Apprentice finale. Deal or No Deal, was in fact, NBC's top-rated show and in a maniacal effort to prop up its overall lagging ratings, Deal or No Deal was extended to three episodes on three different weeknights. On Monday, unfortunately for NBC, the network lost a third of its Deal or No Deal viewers when The Apprentice came on. This season The Apprentice ended in June and its final competition were reruns. In spite of this, The Apprentice had fallen to 51st place.

Yada, yada, in its 7th season The Apprentice became Celebrity Apprentice and returned to Thursday nights where it revived its ratings up from pitiful to pitiable and finished the season ranked #48.

I wrote and then edited out a season-by-season description of its downfall realizing, really, who wants to go through 14 of these? One noteworthy moment came in September 2010, when the program returned in its tenth season to its non-celebrity format and came to roost on and crap in the now deceased ER's Thursday 10 p.m. time slot. That year The Apprentice finished ranked #113.

The Decline in Viewership of The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice.

The Apprentice Killed NBC.

Okay, I've now shown how NBC's downfall concurred with the arrival of The Apprentice and how The Apprentice was never very popular. Now to demonstrate that The Apprentice killed NBC.

The death of NBC was more than coincidental. Over and over again, NBC sent in its most popular programs to prop up The Apprentice. The ratings of these programs took a nosedive or else the programs disappeared altogether.

First Year Sacrificial Lambs.

ER. Second highest rated show on NBC. One of the highest rated programs ever.
Role: Followed The Apprentice.
Ranking, year before the debut of The Apprentice: #4.
Ranking, year after: #12.

Will and Grace. Third highest rated show on NBC.
Role: Lead-in for The Apprentice
Ranking, year before the debut of The Apprentice: #11
Ranking, year after: #44

Friends. Top-rated NBC show, one of the highest rated programs ever.
Role: Lead-in for The Apprentice.
Ranking, year before the debut of The Apprentice: #2.
Year after: Program ended.

Wait! Surely you can't blame the scheduled finish of Friends on The Apprentice?

In 2002-2003, the salaries of the six major characters on Friends had ballooned to $1 million dollars. Per episode. That worked out to be $132 million dollars in salaries for just the principal characters. At the same time, producer Mark Burnett had rocked television with Survivor. Survivor had debuted in 2000 and proved that you didn't need star names (or salaries) to get killer ratings. In 2002-2003, the CBS program was the seventh highest rated show and, perhaps as significantly, it had come to roost on Thursday nights.

NBC recognized Burnett's revolution and decided to gamble on his latest creation, The Apprentice. Goodbye to $100-plus million salaries. NBC gave their baby what was possibly the cushiest time slot in television history after Friends and before ER. The Apprentice would spearhead their Friend-less future.

In spite of The Apprentice never being a great success after its first propped-up season, it continued on Thursday nights until ER was ranked #28 (and even then, the second best rated program on NBC). The best rated program on NBC? Deal or No Deal, which was sacrificed to prop up The Apprentice on its move to Mondays.

By the end of the decade, NBC had moved from having the top-rated scripted shows to reality shows, game shows and Sunday Night Football. For years, Sunday Night Football acted as NBC's only hit. To complete the symmetry of the devastation, The Apprentice moved to the Sundays after the football season ended.

Trump as Carnival Barker.

While performing this analysis, I realized one aspect of Donald Trump's character that I didn't quite get before. He is P.T. Barnum. He is a carnival shill. Even when The Apprentice was doing poorly, he was out there promoting the hell out of it. (I kind of admire this.) Of course, he didn't say the ratings stunk. He used euphemisms for stunk, like wonderful. From his tweets:

 Feb 22, 2012 12:35:31 PM @CelebApprentice is having wonderful ratings once again. @IvankaTrump & @DonaldJTrumpJr. I am very proud of this season.

The above tweet came shortly after Celebrity Apprentice debuted at third place in its time slot (second place for the final thirty minutes of its two hours). It finished the season ranked #73.

Trump made a lot of tweets about The Apprentice and ratings. He was also obsessed about the ratings of others.

Jan 26, 2012 02:54:17 PM @BarackObama's SOTU [State of the Union address] ratings were down 12% from 2011.

Being Trump, the claims of his ratings were often lies.

Nov 5, 2012 02:35:32 PM .@mcuban When Apprentice became the #1 show on tv you tried copying me with The Benefactor- a complete and total ratings disaster for @ABC.

The Apprentice was nothing like the #1 show on TV.

Feb 16, 2015 03:11:43 PM "@Bravolebrity1 LeezaGibbons @BrandiGlanville @kevinjonas @GeraldoRivera Ratings for #CelebrityApprentice have been at an all time high! #1"

For the February 16, 2015 episode Celebrity Apprentice was beaten by 2 Broke Girls, Mike & Molly, Stevie Wonder Special, The Bachelor, and Gotham. At 11:43 pm February 16, the time of the tweet, the ratings would not have been in.

Final Note: In the past year, with Donald Trump having headed off to work on other projects, NBC has been making a comeback and will likely end the year with several top ten hits.

Other Donald Trump posts:


 Martin Hill Ortiz is the author of Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press.

Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press

Never Kill A Friend is available for purchase in hard cover format and as an ebook.
The story follows Shelley Krieg, an African-American detective for the Washington DC Metro PD as she tries to undo a wrong which sent an innocent teenager to prison.

Hard cover: Amazon US
Kindle: Amazon US
Hard cover: Amazon UK
Kindle: Amazon UK
Barnes and Noble 


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