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The Underlying Fiction Of Reality TV: From ‘Dog Days’ To ‘The Apprentice’ And Beyond

In the fall of 2002, “Dog Days” aired on Animal Planet, providing a charming glimpse into the lives of New Yorkers and their canine companions. The show followed former “Saturday Night Live” choreographer Danielle Flora and model Edward Cruz, navigating life in New York City with their dogs. It focused on singles, and was in some ways a reality dating show. (Note: I was creator and producer of the program.)

Although short-lived, “Dog Days” encapsulated the emerging genre of reality TV, a genre that would soon evolve into something far more influential and controversial with shows like “The Apprentice.”

After a career in documentary film, my foray into so-called reality TV proved to be, at its core, too much fiction masquerading as fact for me to stay in that field.

Reality TV, despite its label, often blurs the line between fact and fiction. Shows like “Dog Days” presented a seemingly authentic portrayal of everyday life, but behind the scenes, producers meticulously crafted narratives to enhance drama and viewer engagement.

This formula — an illusion of reality against an authentic backdrop — became the cornerstone of reality television. While “Dog Days” was a benign example, the genre’s potential to shape perceptions and manipulate truth would soon be fully realized with the advent of “Real World” and “The Apprentice.”

On January 8, 2004, NBC premiered “The Apprentice,” introducing viewers to Donald Trump as the ultimate business mogul. The show was an immediate hit, with 18 million viewers tuning in for the premiere and 28 million for the season finale. Over its run, “The Apprentice” and its spin-off, “The Celebrity Apprentice,” became prime-time staples, bolstering Trump’s image as a decisive, successful businessman.

However, this portrayal was a carefully constructed illusion. Despite his businesses facing multiple bankruptcies, Trump was depicted as a paragon of business acumen and wealth. The reality, as insiders now reveal, was far different. The show’s producers, including Mark Burnett, presented a version of Trump that was more myth than reality. As one producer noted, “We played fast and loose with the facts, particularly regarding Trump, and if you were one of the 28 million who tuned in, chances are you were conned.”

Over time, some of the NDAs signed by those involved in the production have expired, allowing former producers to speak out. They reveal a much different Trump than the public saw on TV: a man prone to misogynistic and racist comments, struggling with basic tasks, and more concerned with appearances than substance. For instance, one producer recalls Trump’s casually sexist remarks and his discomfort with female crew members. In one instance, he ordered a female camera operator off an elevator because he deemed her “too heavy.” Such incidents were never part of the public narrative crafted by the show.

One particularly revealing anecdote involves Trump’s struggles with remembering contestants’ names and delivering coherent instructions. Producers had to use additional dialogue recorded to make Trump appear articulate and in command. This behind-the-scenes manipulation was key to sustaining the illusion of Trump as the ultimate business authority.

As Trump transitioned from reality TV star to presidential candidate, the myth constructed on “The Apprentice” played a crucial role. The show had established him as a competent, no-nonsense leader, a perception he leveraged during his campaign. The reality TV president, as some have called him, used the image honed on the show to appeal to voters.

The influence of “The Apprentice” on Trump’s political persona cannot be overstated, underscoring the power of media in shaping public perception.

In 2024, a new film titled “The Apprentice” aimed to expose the reality behind the reality TV show. Directed by Ali Abbasi and starring Sebastian Stan as a young Donald Trump, the film delves into Trump’s early career and the making of the television show that would catapult him to national prominence. The film, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, sparked controversy for its unflinching portrayal of Trump and the manipulative tactics used by “Apprentice” producers. Trump fired back with a barrage of criticism and the threat of legal action.

The revelations in the film have provided ammunition for Trump’s critics, who argue that his public persona is built on deception and manipulation. Supporters of the film suggest that it could sway undecided voters by providing a more nuanced and critical view of Trump’s past and character.

Mark Burnett, the producer behind “The Apprentice,” and Jeff Zucker, who was the president of NBC Entertainment during the show’s early years, played pivotal roles in shaping Trump’s public image. Despite Burnett’s history of political donations, which included contributions to Democratic candidates, he, along with Zucker, shielded the American public from the unvarnished truth about Trump.

Burnett, in particular, has been reticent to release unaired footage from “The Apprentice,” which reportedly contains unflattering and potentially damaging content about Trump. This reluctance, combined with the non-disclosure agreements signed by crew members, has kept much of the truth hidden from the public eye. Zucker, although no longer at NBC, also bears responsibility for the role the network played in promoting and sustaining the Trump myth.

The decision to withhold damaging footage and maintain the carefully constructed image of Trump has had significant implications. As Trump is campaigning for president once again, the narrative shaped by “The Apprentice” continues to influence public perception. The myth of Trump as a successful, decisive leader persists, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. This concealment raises important ethical questions about the responsibility of media producers and networks. By prioritizing entertainment and ratings over truth, Burnett and Zucker contributed to the creation of a false narrative that has had profound political and social ramifications.

As Trump remains a prominent figure in American politics, it is crucial to understand the origins of his media-crafted persona and the ethical implications of the decisions made by those behind the scenes.

“The Apprentice,” a scathing portrait of a young Donald Trump, made a big splash at the Cannes Film Festival. Yet despite its critical success, the film still doesn’t have a U.S. distributor.

Sources close to the dealmaking suggest that many potential buyers, including major studios and indie distributors, are hesitant due to fears of political backlash if Trump returns to power. This reluctance underscores the broader issue of censorship and the influence of political considerations on artistic expression. The ongoing struggle to find a distributor for “The Apprentice” highlights the challenges faced by those who seek to reveal uncomfortable truths, particularly in a politically charged environment.

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