"Presidents have a right to do things in their spare time, in their leisure time," Kellyanne Conway recently told CNN of her boss, President-elect Donald Trump.
The question at hand was whether Trump should continue as an executive producer on NBC’s The Celebrity Apprentice. Conway said that if Trump remained involved with the show, it would be no different from Barack Obama playing golf — a hobby, something fun that Trump could do when not running the country.
The Apprentice franchise — which launched in 2004 in its original, non-celebrity edition and took on its current form in 2008 — was a major factor in Trump’s return to pop cultural relevance. (You can read more about the series and its mastermind producer Mark Burnett here.) Variety broke the news that Trump would retain a credit on the show on December 8.
Trump used to host The Celebrity Apprentice and serve as executive producer, but since he was fired from hosting in the wake of calling Mexicans rapists while launching his presidential campaign in 2015, he has only served as an executive producer. (No seasons of the show aired after that point until the first non-Trump season, hosted by Arnold Schwarzenegger, debuted January 2, 2017.)
Though questions of just how active of a role Trump will play in producing the series might seem pressing, to most in the television industry, his involvement will seem one of his more minor conflicts of interest. (That he has enough conflicts of interest to have "more minor conflicts of interest," however, is worth noting.)
The real concern here is with NBC.
If The Celebrity Apprentice works like every other show on television, Trump’s title will be largely ceremonial
When you reach a certain level of stature or celebrity in the television industry, the promise of an "executive producer" title might be what gets you to sign on to a series. It’s a way to offer a slightly bigger paycheck and a slightly larger cut of residuals from later broadcasts. If the series wins an Emmy, you’ll win an Emmy with it, as part of the production team. And so on.
But the vast majority of "executive producer" titles are strictly ceremonial. Sometimes they’ll be given to an actor on a hit show midway through the show’s run, as a way to encourage that actor to stick around by giving him a little extra cash. Sometimes they’re offered to a star to encourage her to sign on to a fledgling project and give it a higher profile. (John Travolta, for instance, is an executive producer on American Crime Story, even though he only starred in its first season.) And sometimes a tested writer or showrunner will join a series from a less-known writer as an executive producer to give the project a better chance of being picked up to series, thus expanding the tested writer’s TV empire.
But these people typically aren’t doing much behind-the-scenes work to make these TV shows. J.J. Abrams, for instance, was credited as an executive producer on HBO’s Westworld, but the show’s day-to-day operations fell to its actual creators, Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy. Certainly if a star is given an executive producer credit, she's important to the series overall, but she's probably not super involved in its creative direction.
Or as veteran TV writer Jack Burditt (of 30 Rock, Last Man Standing, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt fame) put it:
Someone asked how Trump can not do any work on The Apprentice yet still get an executive producer credit, and all of TV laughed.— Jack Burditt (@jackburditt) December 10, 2016
Trump’s executive producer title, then, is almost certainly ceremonial. (It’s also worth noting that on the Celebrity Apprentice season that launched in January 2017, production had already been wrapped, and one presumes Trump didn’t work very hard on it while on the campaign trail.) He’ll be entitled to view cuts of episodes if he wants to — but one presumes that if the president of the United States really wanted cuts of upcoming episodes of any TV show, he could get them. Indeed, President Obama received early screeners of Game of Thrones episodes for the most recent season.
Is this a conflict of interest? Yes, in the sense that Trump will see monetary gain if Celebrity Apprentice is successful, and in the sense that he will collect a paycheck for every episode from the series’ production company, MGM. (Variety estimates that paycheck to be "five figures.")
One can imagine a world where Trump leans heavily on NBC to keep renewing the show or else cuts off the network’s access to his administration, but compared with the complicated web of financial interests Trump’s businesses have in foreign countries, it’s pretty small ball.
Thus, as Trumpian conflicts of interest go, The Celebrity Apprentice is pretty far down the list. If Trump were truly concerned about the appearance of propriety, he could divest himself of all involvement in the show — even ceremonial involvement — or at least refuse paychecks for it. But Trump rarely seems too concerned about the appearance of propriety.
But there really might be a conflict of interest here for NBC — and we’ve already witnessed how it could affect the network’s reporting
On the one hand, NBC’s relationship to The Celebrity Apprentice is several degrees removed from Trump. The show is produced by MGM, so NBC isn’t paying Trump directly. And if the series tanks and NBC cancels it, it won’t be out nearly as much as MGM is.
On the other hand, NBC is now primarily responsible for the success of a TV show that financially benefits the soon-to-be president of the United States. If it were to schedule the show on Saturdays or not promote it at all, the show would probably fail. Trump isn't running around saying, "Watch The Celebrity Apprentice this January on NBC!" at his post-election rallies, but one also presumes he wouldn’t want the show to be canceled.
And, of course, NBC wants all of its shows to be a hit. That means more ad dollars, and ad dollars are still the biggest way for traditional broadcast networks to keep the lights on. This opens up a potentially much larger conflict of interest on the network’s part.
Let’s imagine that the Trump administration is hit by a major, Watergate-level scandal, something that could end his presidency and ruin the Trump name forever. (Hey, it could happen.)
Then let’s say NBC is the only network with the story, but it’s also got a solid performer or even a hit in The Celebrity Apprentice — a show still intimately tied to the Trump brand and name and a show it probably doesn’t want the legal hassle of removing him from entirely. Would there be a slight chilling effect in reporting that story?
I’d like to say probably not. Many reporters, after all, would all love to do something as momentous as bring down a corrupt presidential administration. But we don’t really have to run the test case I’ve described above to know what NBC would do in such a circumstance, because a similar test case already played out during the campaign.
The infamous Access Hollywood video of Trump appearing to brag about committing serial sexual assault to host Billy Bush came from a show owned by NBC’s parent company, NBCUniversal (disclosure: NBCUniversal is an investor in Vox Media). And though the company was aware of that tape for some time prior to the story breaking in the media, it hemmed and hawed about whether to do anything with it. The tape was ultimately released by the Washington Post.
As Variety’s Maureen Ryan has written, the web of connections between NBC and Trump is surprisingly deep, surprisingly entrenched, and a problem from the perspective of any organization hoping to report on an incoming presidential administration.
In and of itself, Trump’s executive producer credit on The Celebrity Apprentice is a tiny issue in the midst of much, much larger issues. But as part of Trump’s continued relationship with one major media company, it’s much more troubling.
That said, it’s not clear what NBC could do. Removing Trump’s name from the credits would likely require some sort of legal maneuvering, since he’s been there from the very first days of the series, and that process would probably have to be carried out by production company MGM, which actually signs the checks. Thus, NBC bears the greatest burden — in that its news coverage of Trump now has another gauntlet to cross — but has almost no recourse for removing Trump from the program.
But even MGM would struggle to remove Trump’s credit, due to all those murky legalities we don’t know much about. (To have a better sense of them, we’d have to get hold of Trump’s Apprentice contract — and probably the one from season one.) If Trump wants to stay credited on The Celebrity Apprentice and continue to collect paychecks from it, there’s not a lot anyone can do, which only continues to show how unusual the incoming administration really is.