Reagan vs. Trump: A Look Back on General Electric Theater and The Apprentice


General Electric Theater and The Apprentice were two very different shows. They aired a half-century apart on different networks. One was scripted, the other unscripted. The shows required vastly different responsibilities from their respective hosts. Yet, both General Electric Theater and The Apprentice are examples of the medium of television at its most powerful. They ultimately helped propel two men, Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump, to the presidency. Here is a look back at the two shows’ ratings, their appeal without Reagan and Trump, and the impact the shows had on their respective hosts’ political careers. 

Despite Donald Trump’s boasting about the show’s performance in presidential debates and referring to himself as “Ratings Machine DJT,” The Apprentice was a classic example of a flameout. Its debut season, airing in spring 2004, nearly averaged double digits in the key demo at a 9.6 Adults 18-49 rating, making it one of the highest-rated series in the 2003-04 TV season. To capitalize off the success, NBC would air The Apprentice two cycles per season for the next two seasons. The second cycle came in first place for the network but fell to a 7.7 rating; the third dipped to a 6.3 rating and third place. By its fourth season in fall 2005, The Apprentice was down to a 5.0 rating, coming in fourth place on NBC. Season 5, airing in spring 2006, tied for tenth place with a 4.0 rating. Over the course of two calendar years, The Apprentice had lost nearly 60% of its audience and was losing to newer reality shows like The Biggest Loser and Deal Or No Deal. This caused NBC to rest The Apprentice in fall 2006. It returned in spring 2007, where it averaged 13th place on NBC and a 3.1 rating. It was rested again after that in favor of the newly-created The Celebrity Apprentice, before returning in fall 2010 to abysmal ratings. While Celebrity Apprentice stopped the bleeding and came in 6th place that season, The Apprentice came in 22nd place on NBC with just a 1.7 rating. It finished behind several shows that NBC canceled that season. While The Apprentice reached greater heights than The Celebrity Apprentice, the latter is most likely the version people think of when they look back on the IP. 

General Electric Theater’s ratings trajectory was more complicated than The Apprentice’s. It aired behind The Ed Sullivan Show for the entirety of its run. Both shows had their share of good and not-so-good seasons. In Reagan’s first season as host, General Electric Theater averaged a 32.6 rating behind The Ed Sullivan Show’s 39.6 rating, the former coming in 8th place for CBS and the latter 3rd place. By the 1956-57 TV season, Reagan’s third as host, both The Ed Sullivan Show and General Electric Theater were dominant. The Ed Sullivan Show averaged a 38.4 rating, finishing ahead of all other shows on television save I Love Lucy, while General Electric Theater was one spot lower at a 36.9 rating. General Electric Theater arguably looked best the following season, when its Ed Sullivan Show lead-in tanked to 14th place on CBS and nearly fell out of the overall top 30. General Electric Theater would substantially build on The Ed Sullivan Show, coming in fifth place on CBS. The problem for General Electric Theater came toward the end of its run; in its final season, it failed to crack the top 30, a feat 14 other CBS shows achieved. That included The Ed Sullivan Show, which ranked 11th on CBS in 1961-62 thanks to an even higher-rated sitcom block leading into it. General Electric Theater ended after that season, and Ronald Reagan’s contract with General Electric not renewed. 

Appeal With & Without Hosts
Both General Electric Theater and The Apprentice fared better with the future presidents as host. Given General Electric Theater was an anthology series with a different theme every episode, Ronald Reagan’s host provided a way to tie the series together. The show had no set cast, only guest stars to act and Ronald Reagan to host. Given the show’s popularity, this made his a familiar face over the course of his eight seasons as host (the show was host-free for the first two seasons). After General Electric Theater’s tenth season, the show was replaced by GE True. GE True was essentially the same show as General Electric Theater, only with Jack Webb as host instead of Ronald Reagan. Airing behind a sitcom that had been canceled by a rival network, GE True only lasted one season before getting canceled. 

While both Reagan and Trump were hosts of their respective shows, they were utilized differently. Donald Trump was also a producer on The Apprentice, which filmed in Trump Tower in New York City and was co-produced by Trump Productions. Trump would introduce tasks to a group of contestants, and would later meet with them in the famous boardroom scenes before choosing a contestant to eliminate. The winner of the original, non-celebrity version would go on to become an apprentice to a Trump property — hence the title. Unlike most unscripted competition shows, The Apprentice was very much centered around its host. Neither The Apprentice: Martha Stewart nor the Arnold Schwarzenegger-hosted season at the end of The Celebrity Apprentice’s run gained any traction. While The Apprentice may not have always been a hit with Trump as host, it was never a hit with anyone else as host.

If it wasn’t for Donald Trump and, most importantly, his signature “You’re fired” line and delivery of said line, The Apprentice may not have taken off the way it did. If Martha Stewart was the original host, The Apprentice could very well have been one-and-done, just like The Apprentice: Martha Stewart was. However, the ratings indicate that Donald Trump’s draw waned as the seasons progressed. With The Celebrity Apprentice extending the IP’s shelf life and far out-rating the original in fall 2010, Donald Trump was no longer the draw; the celebrities were. In all fairness to Trump, this isn’t out of the ordinary. For example, American Idol had its smallest year-to-year declines the season after Simon Cowell left in several years. The IP had simply grown to the point where he wasn’t as needed as he once was, yet still was far stronger for ratings than any other host.   

As for Reagan, his movie career was waning at the time he landed the General Electric Theater gig. He already had the acting chops from his movie career, which helped him out with the role. Unlike with Trump and The Apprentice though, General Electric Theater didn’t really need Reagan more than any other talent in particular. What Reagan was really needed for was to fulfill the other part of his contract: the one that helped launch his political career. 

Political Impact
Reagan’s case was more unique than the average television host today. As part of his contract with General Electric, he was obligated to make off-site speeches at company plants to the employees. Like Reagan, General Electric was politically conservative. Reagan was their perfect spokesperson, himself developing the oratory abilities that led to him being known as ‘The Great Communicator.’ For example, General Electric was strongly anti-union, especially after a labor strike had hurt their business. It was up to Reagan, who shared the anti-union sentiment, to convince GE workers against being in a union. While it should go without saying, this is not something you see the average TV show host doing. These off-show events allowed Reagan to develop his brand as a conservative politician, eventually leading to a 1966 run and landslide victory for governor of California in 1966. He won a narrower re-election victory in 1970 before running for president and nearly beating incumbent Gerald Ford in a primary in 1976. He was elected to the presidency in 1980 and re-elected in 1984, winning a combined 93 states and losing only 7 over the course of his two elections. Over 35 years after he left office, many Republicans still tie themselves and their policy positions to Reagan — including Donald Trump. 

Unlike Reagan, Donald Trump didn’t have to go around the country and stump for General Electric. He only had to provide a product that would make them money, as ironically the conglomerate owned NBC when The Apprentice premiered. Trump’s popularity on The Apprentice helped reinvigorate his image as a successful New York businessman and real estate tycoon that he had spent decades building. A short-lived presidential campaign in 2000 put him on the sidelines politically for a bit, but his stint on The Apprentice combined with his growing political image on social media helped rebuild Trump as a potential presidential candidate. As he raised his political profile, he even led a few early polls for the 2012 Republican nomination, before announcing that he was in fact not going to run for the nomination. By the time he announced his 2016 run for president, Donald Trump had spent a combined 17 seasons as host of The Apprentice and The Celebrity Apprentice. In spite of a storied business career full of high-profile successes and failures, he was perhaps most well known for his role on The Apprentice at the time. Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States less than two years after his final season of The Celebrity Apprentice finished airing, and has remained at the forefront of American politics ever since. 

Reagan vs. Trump
Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump both benefitted politically from their hosting gigs of General Electric Theater and The Apprentice, respectively. Donald Trump’s pre-Apprentice 2000 presidential campaign went poorly. Meanwhile, there’s no evidence Ronald Reagan even had any political ambition before his hosting gig. It’s arguable that Reagan benefitted more; Donald Trump knows how to navigate social media to raise his profile, a tool Reagan did not have. Plus, Trump was already a businessman with many recognizable properties, whereas Reagan was best known for acting in pre-war western movies. Regardless, this demonstrates just how powerful the medium of television is. 

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