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'Pray for Arnold': Trump keeps trashing 'Apprentice' ratings, but are they really that bad?

During the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday morning, President Donald Trump took time to request prayers for an old friend: Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Trump was introduced at the breakfast by Mark Burnett, producer and creator of “The Apprentice,” the series that first beamed Trump into American homes on a weekly basis.

The president called Burnett a “special, special friend”  before pivoting to his concerns about the current ratings for “Celebrity Apprentice,” now hosted by Schwarzenegger.

“We had tremendous success on ‘The Apprentice,’” Trump said of his history with Burnett. “And when I ran for president, I had to leave the show. That's when I knew for sure that I was doing it. And they hired a big, big movie star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to take my place. And we know how that turned out.

“The ratings went down the tubes. It's been a total disaster, and Mark will never, ever bet against Trump again,” Trump added. “And I want to just pray for Arnold, if we can, for those ratings, OK?”

Schwarzenegger had an immediate response for Trump’s thoughts and prayers, suggesting that the two of them switch jobs.

https://twitter.com/Schwarzenegger/status/827169996866347008

This is not the first time that Schwarzenegger and Trump have engaged in a war of words. 

The former governor of California announced in October that he would not be voting for the Republican candidate for president, for the first time since becoming an American citizen in 1983.

In January, Trump tweeted his concern about the ratings for “Celebrity Apprentice,” saying, “So much for … being a movie star — and that was season 1 compared to season 14. Now compare him to my season 1. But who cares, he supported Kasich & Hillary.”

In response, Schwarzenegger tweeted, “I wish you the best of luck and I hope you'll work for ALL of the American people as aggressively as you worked for your ratings.”

The president is correct that “The Celebrity Apprentice” has seen a slump in ratings since his departure. Monday’s episode drew 3.7 million viewers; the last episode hosted by Trump in February 2015 scored 6 million viewers.

But even Trump’s ratings were a far cry from the kind the series garnered at its height, raking in about 21 million during peak viewership in its first season in 2004.

Because the commander in chief remains an executive producer on the series, it’s possible his inflammatory remarks are meant to stoke controversy and, therefore, ratings for the flagging show now in its 15th season.

That raises an interesting question: Is Trump using his world stage to manipulate ratings and thereby goose earnings from which he would directly profit? Or did he merely use a highly publicized prayer event to snipe at yet another rival?

In reality, Trump has long been obsessed with ratings of “The Apprentice.” In January 2015, Trump told the Television Critics Assn.’s winter tour that the series was “the No. 1 show on television.” It was not

When forced to clarify, Trump amended his statement and said the show was the highest-rated series on Monday nights, which was also inaccurate. 

“That's just what I had heard,” Trump said with shrug.

In an interview with Frontline in June, Jim Dowd, former director of East Coast public relations for NBC, who worked closely with Trump during “The Apprentice,” said the businessman was “obsessed with ratings.”

“There’s about 10 people who cover ratings in terms of the publications that matter most,” Dowd said, sharing an anecdote about Trump’s infatuation with ratings and perception. “And he would want to make sure I called all those 10 people and told them, ‘Number one show on television, won its time slot,’ and I’m looking at the numbers and at that point, say season five, for example, we were number 72. (Laughs.) I can’t tell that to him. I can’t say that.”

“Maybe I should have, maybe I should have gotten Jeff Zucker involved, but he became kind of a monster when it came to these ratings,” Dowd concluded.

Representatives for NBC did not immediately respond to The Times’ request for comment Thursday morning.

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libby.hill@latimes.com

@midwestspitfire

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UPDATES:

9:30 a.m.: This article was updated with additional details about ratings for “The Apprentice.”

This article was originally published at 8:10 a.m.

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