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Donald Trump is right about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Celebrity Apprentice ratings. He’s also wrong.

Yes, Trump’s ratings are higher than Schwarzenegger’s. No, that doesn’t mean what Trump thinks it does.

Donald Trump appears in the most recent season finale of The Celebrity Apprentice. (NBC)
Donald Trump appears in his last season of The Celebrity Apprentice.
NBC

President Donald Trump keeps ribbing the low ratings for a TV series he executive-produces.

At the National Prayer Breakfast on February 2, Trump asked attendees to pray for the low ratings of The Celebrity Apprentice, which is now being hosted by Arnold Schwarzenegger. (Here’s video proof, because I know this sounds weird.) Schwarzenegger responded via his Instagram:

The National Prayer Breakfast?

A video posted by Arnold Schwarzenegger (@schwarzenegger) on

Trump’s comments mirrored something he said in early January, before his inauguration. On January 6, a few days after the show’s January 2 debut, Trump crowed over how low the ratings were for the latest season of The Celebrity Apprentice, in comparison with the seasons he hosted (the last of which aired in early 2015). He blamed new host Arnold Schwarzenegger, boasting that Schwarzenegger couldn’t compare to Trump, a “ratings machine.”

Schwarzenegger responded via his own Twitter account:

On a pure numbers level, Trump is absolutely correct. Schwarzenegger’s Celebrity Apprentice, despite a lot of interest from the media, scored just 4.95 million live viewers, with a 1.3 rating in the critical 18- to 49-year-old demographic. Trump’s last season of The Celebrity Apprentice launched with 6.31 million viewers and a 2.4 in the 18-49 demographic, though his final season launched on a Sunday, rather than a Monday. (It quickly moved to Monday, and its lowest-rated episode hit a 1.4 in the demo, with 4.98 million viewers.)

Schwarzenegger’s ratings have dropped, but not by all that much. At their lowest point on Monday, January 30, The Celebrity Apprentice pulled in 3.71 million live viewers and a 1.0 rating in the 18-49 demographic. Trump’s final season, by comparison, pulled in 4.98 million live viewers and a 1.4 rating in the 18-49 demographic at its lowest point (on February 9, 2015). So while Schwarzenegger’s ratings are lower than Trump’s, they aren’t off by that much.

Ratings points roughly translate to the percentage of viewers watching in a certain demographic. So you can think of Schwarzenegger’s 1.0 as a percentage of 18- to 49-year-old viewers watching, versus Trump’s 1.4. (That’s not precisely accurate, but it’s close enough for the purposes of this story.)

Trump is right that more people watched his Celebrity Apprentice than are watching Schwarzenegger’s. But would you believe he’s leaving out a lot of context?

Almost everybody’s live ratings are awful compared with where they were in January 2015

Notice above where I said Schwarzenegger’s Celebrity Apprentice debut grabbed just 4.95 million “live” viewers? That distinction is important. It covers people who watched the broadcast either live or on their DVRs shortly after its broadcast. If someone watched it, say, Wednesday night on their DVR or on Hulu, they won’t be added to the pile for more than a week, when what are called “Live+3” numbers come in. (These numbers are what they sound like — everybody who watched live or within three days of broadcast. Networks also routinely collect Live+7 numbers, and many go even further than that.)

Now, reality TV is a genre that doesn’t perform extraordinarily well on DVR and streaming, because so much of its appeal stems from finding out who was ousted, and that’s easily spoiled by a friend or co-worker or the media. (Compare that with scripted drama, where something like the new Kiefer Sutherland show Designated Survivor routinely doubles its viewership when DVR and streaming viewers are added in.) So it’s probable that Schwarzenegger won’t ever add enough viewers to catch up to Trump’s number — especially once Trump’s own Live+whatever viewers are considered.

But at the same time, saying that a show’s January 2017 ratings aren’t as good as its ratings from January 2015 is like saying, “Yes, and?” Look at all the ratings for these random shows I grabbed!

The Bachelor

  • January 2015: 7.76 million (2.2)
  • January 2017: 6.62 million (2.1)

2 Broke Girls

  • January 2015: 9.08 million (2.4)
  • January 2017: 5.88 million (1.3)

Scorpion

  • January 2015: 12.32 million (2.4)
  • January 2017: 7.37 million (1.2)

NCIS

  • January 2015: 19.76 million (2.8)
  • January 2017: 15.79 million (1.8)

Modern Family

  • January 2015: 9.29 million (3.2)
  • January 2017: 7.57 million (2.4)

You get the idea. There are shows whose ratings have held steady or even grown between 2015 and 2017. (Game of Thrones, for instance, keeps getting bigger, and presumably will grow ever larger as it approaches its finale.) But they’re few and far between.

If Trump was still hosting The Celebrity Apprentice, perhaps the fall wouldn’t have been as steep from 2015 to 2017. But there still would have been a fall, almost certainly. Just look at The Bachelor; it didn’t fall far, but it fell nonetheless.

This is why comparing Schwarzenegger’s first season with Trump’s first season of The Apprentice (or even Trump’s first season of The Celebrity Apprentice, which aired long after the show’s ratings had softened) is so ludicrous. The very first season of The Apprentice aired all the way back in 2004. Friends was still on the air! Of course ratings were higher.

I’d say that I suspect Trump knows a 22 percent ratings slide is fairly typical from 2015 to 2017. I’d say he’s just taking out his frustrations on someone he believes wronged him during the campaign, in keeping with his MO. But at the same time, I’m not sure Trump knows what his ratings even were.

And he basically admitted as much at a press conference.

Donald Trump has people to tell him what he wants to hear

In early 2015, around when his final season of The Celebrity Apprentice debuted, Trump attended the Television Critics Association winter press tour to hype the show. It was pretty standard stuff throughout — back when rumors of Trump running for president existed, but few took seriously the idea that he could win.

But early on, a reporter pushed Trump on his constant claims that The Celebrity Apprentice was the No. 1 show on TV. That really wasn’t true in early 2015, and hadn’t been true except for a couple of weeks back in 2004. And yet Trump kept saying his show was tops.

Trump went back and forth with the reporter, making it clear what he meant was that his show was the No. 1 show on Mondays in the 18-49 demo, which was, at that point in time, also untrue. Another reporter jumped in, and I’ll just reprint the exchange in full:

REPORTER: Mr. Trump, if the producers of Mike & Molly were to say that they had better 18-49 ratings than the Celebrity Apprentice the past two weeks, would they be wrong?

DONALD TRUMP: No. No. That’s [referring back to his earlier claims] what I had heard. That’s what I was told. That’s what I was told.

So Trump didn’t really check his ratings. He just had people tell him what they were, so he could brag about them. And those people evidently just told him what he wanted to hear.

In and of itself, this isn’t unusual — lots of TV stars don’t pay that close attention to their ratings if they’re on a long-running show. The paychecks keep rolling in, and they’ll care about the ratings again when they threaten said paychecks (or when they’re just ready to leave the show from boredom). But Trump could never just say, “Hey, I don’t know what my ratings are. I’ve got better things to do.” He kept bragging, because he loves to brag.

His answer at the press conference exemplifies a pattern with Trump, who’s long been susceptible to just believing stuff he hears somewhere, whether it’s about his ratings, Ted Cruz’s father, or China. Trump has always been Trump — he was Trump before he was even running for president. To pretend that he was somehow putting on airs on the campaign trail misses one of the most dangerous things about him.