Television network NBC introduced former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as the new star of “The New Celebrity Apprentice” at a media event Friday, but reporters were fixated on the boss who wasn’t in the room: President-elect Donald Trump.
Controversy swirled around Trump’s plans to retain his executive producer credit — and financial ties — with the NBC reality show as he transitions to his new role running the country.
Trump has drawn criticism for the number of business entanglements that he may bring to the White House.
Some media observers say his ongoing role with the show presents a potential conflict of interest for NBC because its news division covers Trump and his administration. NBC’s parent company, Comcast Corp., also has business pending in Washington and might have an interest in keeping the show on the air out of fear of retribution from Trump.
“NBC is put in a difficult position,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “NBC doesn’t want to be in the position of paying the president of the United States a substantial sum of money. They will stress division between entertainment and news. But it doesn’t look good.”
NBC will not pay Trump directly. Instead, the network pays a license fee for the show to the production company, which is now Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. MGM confirmed Trump’s ongoing financial arrangement but declined to comment further.
MGM owns “The Celebrity Apprentice” and “The Apprentice” show formats. It maintains a direct financial relationship with Trump and Mark Burnett, the producer who created the show in 2004.
Trump has said he has 50% of Burnett’s stake in the show. Trump and Burnett could share at least $150,000 an episode for the producer credits as well as revenue from advertising, one former network executive estimated. In addition to a fixed fee, Trump gets a portion of the profits from the show.
NBC ordered 13 episodes this season and is preparing to launch “The New Celebrity Apprentice” on Jan. 2 with Schwarzenegger stepping in as the show’s boardroom judge. The actor turned politician replaces Trump as the lead character who decides the fates of various contestants.
Schwarzenegger, at the NBC event Friday, said he wasn’t concerned about Trump’s ongoing ties to the show. Schwarzenegger, who did not support Trump in the election, said he called and congratulated Trump on his victory.
”I knew from the beginning [Trump] was going to be executive producer of the show, his credit is on there,” Schwarzenegger said during the event at Universal Studios. “It's no different [from] when I was running for governor and I became governor, my credit as starring in ‘Terminator’… stayed the same."
But Schwarzenegger put his film career on hold while he was governor.
Schwarzenegger also joked that the roughly 50 reporters assembled for the event were acting like political journalists because they are asking so many questions about Trump.
His campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, during an appearance Friday on CNN defended Trump's decision to remain an executive producer on "Celebrity Apprentice," saying "presidents have a right to do things in their spare time."
"He's a very transparent guy. Everyone can see what he's doing, and the fact is that he is conferring with all types of experts who tell him what he can do and not do as president of the United States," Conway said.
NBC is heavily invested in the success of "Celebrity Apprentice." Last week it announced that billionaire Warren Buffett, Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, model and TV producer Tyra Banks, actress Jessica Alba and Patrick Knapp Schwarzenegger, the former governor's nephew, will serve as "boardroom advisors" to Schwarzenegger.
On Friday, contestants, including Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi of “Jersey Shore” fame and boxer Laila Ali, the daughter of the late champion Mohammad Ali, attended the NBC red carpet extravaganza along with Banks.
NBC could benefit from the controversy because it could encourage more viewers to watch the 12-year-old program.
But the situation once again puts NBC in an awkward spot. The network’s often soft treatment of Trump was a source of criticism during the campaign. NBC cut its direct financial ties with Trump 18 months ago after he announced that he was running for president.
“The Apprentice” was a huge moneymaker for NBC and Mark Burnett. MGM consolidated the rights to “Celebrity Apprentice” by acquiring Mark Burnett Productions for more than $500 million in recent years.
It was “The Apprentice” that introduced the real estate mogul into the homes of millions of Americans each week, burnishing his image as a business success and catapulting his political career.
Burnett, now the head of TV for MGM, reportedly has consulted with Trump on inauguration events and is expected to help orchestrate Trump's Inauguration Day festivities. He declined to comment.
Burnett and NBC were at the center of a dust-up in October after the leak of a 10-year-old “Access Hollywood” recording that contained the president-elect and former NBC personality Billy Bush making lewd comments about women. After the NBC tapes rocked the campaign, a former “Apprentice” show producer said on Twitter that additional footage existed of Trump making derogatory comments about contestants on “The Apprentice.”
Cameras rolled during the hundreds of hours of boardroom scenes on the reality show’s set, which was constructed at Trump Tower in New York. MGM refused to release the outtakes, citing confidentiality agreements.
Trump has said he will discuss his plans for his family business holdings in a news conference next week.
On Friday, an NBC News executive speaking on the condition of anonymity said the network will mention Trump’s executive producer status on the “Celebrity Apprentice” whenever the show itself is covered on “Today” or other programs. But there are no plans to have a disclaimer about the association in general news stories about Trump.
“The secret of Trump’s getting away with all this is [that] there are four or five things like it each day,” Sabato said. “The media can’t cover them all and nothing will stick. .. It’s going to be the longest four years at least since World War II.”