It started with broadcast radio. Morning DJs played a lot of music. The ones playing the music that the most people liked were the most popular. Then the shock jocks came along. It wasn’t about the music any more. It was about outrageous statements and opinions. Just playing music was boring in comparison.
Before I produced 92 seasons of reality television, I worked with Howard Stern. I’ve come to think he invented reality television, Donald Trump, and eventually the news media of 2020. He attributed his popularity to having a strong point of view. As Stern has said, “If you’re going to be strong on the radio, you got to let it all out, even the ugly stuff. And you can’t apologize for it.” In 1993, Stern became the number one morning drive DJ in New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles, all at the same time.
Through the 1990s and 2000s, Donald Trump was a regular guest of the show, as well as a fan. In the studio, or over the phone, he and Stern talked about everything from the relative hotness of celebrity women to the state of the world economy. I could see him learning from Stern. Strengthening his views.
Trump quickly learned that a nasty feud got him more coverage than dedicating a skating rink in Central Park.
REMEMBER SITCOMS? Cheers, Diff’rent Strokes, Full House, Facts of Life, The Cosby Show. Not much would change, episode to episode. Each ended where it started. Changes to the casts, or the basic underpinnings of the shows, were tentative and slow.
Survivor first aired in 2000. After that, the gentle repartee and mild farce of sitcoms no longer seemed enough. We wanted to watch people fight and risk starving to death for the never-before-seen prize of $1 million, with a contestant eliminated every week. Life-changing stakes became the price of entry for must-watch television. Who wants to be a millionaire? Who wants to marry one of the most eligible bachelors in America? Who wants to become an apprentice to the most successful businessman in the world?
I soon learned, when I started producing story-based reality television in 2002, that it’s not about ordinary, everyday people. It’s about extra good-looking, extra verbal, extra opinionated, extra high-energy, extra charismatic people, carefully produced and edited. They’re real people, but they are very much a cast—dressed, made-up, coached, and edited. A good story is told by and about strong characters.
I learned, too, that it didn’t matter if the main character wasn’t really the most eligible bachelor in America, or the most successful businessman. The underlying truth is irrelevant. It only matters that the participants believe the truth of their situation and competition. If the internal dramas are authentic, their actions will be believable and compelling.
In 2007, I produced Flavor of Love, a show on VH1, in which 20 women competed to date the Public Enemy hype man Flavor Flav (another Howard Stern Show regular). Those women believed he was rich—after all, he was famous—and that they were living in his mansion. In fact, he was not long out of jail for not paying parking tickets. He had very little income. We rented the mansion from a nice family in Encino.
A year later, I produced Rock of Love, in which women competed to date the Poison frontman Bret Michaels. They actually believed that Michaels would make a great and sensitive boyfriend—that he was ready to settle down. On the first night in the house, Michaels slept with four of the women at the same time. The next morning, when the rest of the women realized what had happened, most of them quit. We halted the show and had a long talk with Bret about being romantic, then started the show up again. It didn’t matter if it was true that he was evolved and kind. It only mattered that the women believed he was. If they did, then they’d feel he was worth fighting for, and they would fight for him. And it would be compelling to watch.
At around the same time, Trump was starring in The Apprentice. It was produced by Mark Burnett—the man behind Survivor, and a master of the genre. Burnett knew how to make high-stakes drama. And he knew how to create consistent and compelling characters out of inconsistent and only sometimes compelling real people.
Burnett and his team, like most reality producers, cast good-looking people who spoke easily off the cuff, without filter and with a strong point of view. They coached the contestants to reveal their inner thoughts, and to confront each other. For the host, the producers literally script the words—he or she is just a vehicle for the story of the contestants.
None of this would work without editing. Any moment these people acted out of “character” needed to disappear. Like a curated museum collection is more compelling than a warehouse of junk, or a greatest-hits album is more compelling than most actual albums, a reality-TV character is more consistently compelling to watch than real people in real time.
At this time, most native New Yorkers saw Trump as a bit of a joke: a fame-thirsty, tasteless rake with a history of high-end failure. He made disastrous deals, like the Plaza Hotel. His airline failed almost as soon as it began. He even found a way to go bankrupt on casinos. But on television, through careful editing—turning three hours into thirty seconds—Mark Burnett made Trump seem decisive, funny, and likeable. (The reality TV world is small. One of the things its producers discuss quietly are rumored reams of virulent and shocking statements from Trump — racist, sexist and downright comically idiotic — that the producers edited out, and which they will never reveal because they would struggle to work again in their industry.)
Burnett transformed Trump, outwardly, from a pathetic figure of fun to someone who could plausibly be president. And, inwardly, Trump spent seven seasons learning the tricks of the trade at the feet of the master of the genre. His education—the ways he learned to see the media, and to manipulate it, ones that journalists struggle to understand, and which they cannot therefore effectively cover—was almost complete.
LIFE MAGAZINE celebrated the lives of people. Famous people, ordinary people. It was very successful. But then along came the National Enquirer. It was also a publication about people. Famous people. But this time they were DYING! or DIVORCING! or FEUDING! Nice stories about nice people were out. High stakes and negative conflict—nasty, mean, dumb, I-can’t-believe-he-said-that conflict—was selling. At this point, Life is all but dead.
Trump was a great subject here, too. His marital status was always a matter for debate, and he loved to feud—a trick he learned from Stern, who always had a nemesis. Trump’s battle with Rosie O’Donnell began in 2006. How did it start? What was the crux of it? It didn’t matter, and doesn’t matter. She was calling him a con man and he was inventing new ways to call her fat. And Trump quickly learned that a nasty feud got him more coverage than dedicating a skating rink in Central Park. There is a reason you’ve never heard of a compliment comic. Insults are funnier.
FOR DECADES, as all of this unfolded, journalists worked very hard to eliminate bias from their work. It’s hard for an anchorman not to smirk at something he thinks is absurd. But, across the country, they managed. And, for years, the audience rewarded them with their attention.
But the dawn of social media meant that, by the second decade of the 2000s, journalists had to compete with every other form of entertainment. All are presented equally online, rendered the same by the blank, corporate blues of Facebook and Twitter.
The audience’s time was always limited, but now the choices for how to spend it became unlimited. Netflix does not aim to compete with HBO or Hulu. Their explicit aim, I was told, as laid out in company guidance, is to compete with taking a walk or cooking dinner. They want you to choose them over literally anything else in your life.
Journalism has a responsibility higher than audience pleasure. But ultimately, as it stands, it’s a business. Someone has to pay salaries and buy plane tickets. And that requires viewers or readers—who subscribe, or see ads, or both. A bigger audience means a bigger income.
IN 1996, FOX NEWS came on the air. CNN had been the dominant player for 15 years, with a diet of traditional journalism—the attempt to be unbiased. But Fox had a different idea. It had learned from shock jocks and reality TV. A strong point of view and high stakes were the way to get viewers. Fox News overtook CNN in the ratings by 2002 and has never looked back.
Here, too, Trump was a key subject—just as soon as he embraced the conservative worldview with his public “birther” feud with Barack Obama. Though he and Fox didn’t agree on everything, they both believed in a strong point of view, high stakes, negativity, and the compelling nature of feuds. Those things mean a bigger audience. Which means more money—for Fox, in the shape of advertising revenue, and for Trump, in terms of his personal visibility and reputation. It was a side-effect that he became, in the process, the most powerful person in the world.
Ultimately, the media audience leads the way.
IN HIS FIRST WEEK in office, Trump told his staff to think of every day as an episode of a TV show. I knew what he meant. He meant a story of the day and a strong point of view that he stuck with. He also found his key feud.
The day after the inauguration, the New York Times reported—absolutely accurately—that Trump’s crowd size was smaller than Obama’s. Trump sent out his first press secretary, Sean Spicer, to deny that fact and make a claim for the largest inauguration crowd ever. Facts, and the people who reported them, became his new Rosie O’Donnell.
When viewed purely as entertainment, it’s riveting. He always finds a way to make it personal. It’s not CNN, it’s Jim Acosta. Now we thrill to see whether Acosta gets called on in the next press conference. It’s not the Washington Post, it’s Jeff Bezos. Will the normally anti-regulation Trump block Bezos’ Amazon expansion?
He garnishes his feuds with memorable insults. “You’re a nasty woman.” “Jim’s a low IQ individual.” “Failing New York Times.” “Fake news.” “Enemy of the people.”
Because it’s the president of the United States against a press corps protected by the very First Amendment of the US Constitution that’s a safeguard against tyranny, it’s historic. It must be reported. And who, in any case, can resist a story about themselves?
By feverishly reporting on it, the press has become, itself, the medium through which Trump delivers his reality TV, shock jock, feud-based entertainment. The press, meanwhile, benefits from a huge bump in audience. It’s a win-win. Right?
THE APPRENTICE stuck to a format. Every episode, two teams of contestants—great characters, curated for entertainment value—competed in a challenge to avoid facing Trump and having one of their teammates fired. Every episode, one contestant left the show. Ultimately, only one contestant survived and won the grand prize: a job working for Trump.
This is a longform, serialized story. Every episode has huge stakes because, in reality TV, having to leave the show is akin to death. And the entire season works to the big payoff of a single winner. It follows precisely the same narrative structure as a presidential election—a real-world feud that builds in intensity, includes an elimination process, and ultimately pays off with an life-changing prize for the winner.
After one season of The Election, starring Hillary and Donald, we had The Russia Investigation. It, too, was high stakes (the presidency), featured progressive eliminations (indictments), and led to a hotly anticipated finale (the Mueller report). Sadly, the report was poorly produced, and Mueller poorly cast. He worked better as an idealized possibility, like the wizard of Oz, than a compelling, charismatic screen-presence.
Trump and the media followed this with a spin-off, The Ukraine Whistleblower, built around impeachment. High stakes, again, but a whole new set of characters— Gordon Sondland (the millionaire), Fiona Hill (the British accent), Bill Taylor (the voice), George Kent (the bow tie), Colonel Alexander Vindman (the uniform), Alan Dershowitz (booo!). It built to the ultimate finale—a tribal council vote to see whether Trump has to leave the island. (Spoiler alert: he stayed.)
Now we have The Pandemic. This show actually has bigger stakes (the life or death of your mother!) and a fresh new cast (Pence, Fauci, Birx, and Cuomo) and it has a tragic but riveting elimination process (death). It is also building to a big payoff – the Vaccine!
But this show is different. The Invisible Enemy is just not a compelling character. Trump, try as he might, cannot find a good feud. He tried “It came from CHINA!” and “Democratic Governors are messing this up!” and “WHO dunnit!” and even “Obamagate!” (If the story rises again, I suspect he’ll hope that Dr. Anthony Fauci turns on him. It would have the big bonus that he can find fun ways to call Fauci short. Watch for it.)
ULTIMATELY, THE MEDIA AUDIENCE leads the way. The New York Times is working for a well-educated, twelfth-grade reading level audience that has the critical-thinking skills to weigh competing points of view; the historical perspective to see the patterns; and the civics knowledge to understand the workings of government, including its relationship to the press. And they do a good job for that audience.
At the same time, thanks to reality TV (you’re welcome), a bigger audience than that one has become accustomed to a certain type of high-stakes, big-character, feud-based storytelling. They crave The Bachelor, or Game of Thrones (elimination based, long-form, pays off with a winner.) That audience, and its money, have led us here.
The Donald Trump that is our president is a reality TV show creation–and many of the journalists who cover him are storytellers serving an audience craving reality TV show stories, arcs, characters, stakes, and feuds.
The outlines of the next season, as grim as it might seem, have been in evidence as Trump responds to the protests and riots across America in response to the death of George Floyd. Next season on The Real Apprentice, Election Two: Watch as Joe and Donald square off in the final showdown. But is it a fair fight when one of them runs the army and is not afraid to use it?
Only, this time, there’s no reunion. There’s no tearful breakdown followed by a neat resolution. It’s reality.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the National Enquirer.