When NBC cut ties with Donald Trump after he made derogatory remarks about Mexican immigrants during his presidential campaign announcement, the real estate mogul’s career as a TV personality appeared to be over.
Instead, Trump has become the star of the summer’s biggest TV hit — news coverage of his quest for the Republican nomination.
The unpredictable front-runner’s news conferences, speeches and interviews are ratings gold whenever he shows up on CNN, Fox News Channel or MSNBC. The audience of 24 million viewers for Fox’s Republican Primary debate on Aug. 6 was a record for cable news and three times as large as the channel expected.
Based on that performance, the Sept. 16 GOP debate with Trump and his competitors at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library in Simi Valley is expected to be the most watched event ever on CNN. And the network is cashing in on the anticipation.
CNN is not disclosing its ratings projections or ad prices, but competitors are hearing that advertisers are being asked to pay in the range of $150,000 for a 30-second spot, a figure more in line with a hit prime time entertainment show.
“It’s a lot more than we’d get if Trump weren’t in it,” said one CNN executive not authorized to discuss the figure.
The executive shared the belief among many in the TV news business that the audience will surpass CNN’s long-standing record of 16.8 million viewers for “Larry King Live” on Nov. 9, 1993. On that night, Ross Perot debated Vice President Al Gore over the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Trump’s ability to bring in viewers to news programs is so powerful he even has a de facto set for his performances.
Networks are acquiescing to his demand that all on-camera sit-downs take place in the marble-walled atrium of the 58-story Trump Tower on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, where his corporate office is located.
All of the major TV news outlets have studios a few blocks away. But candidate Trump takes an elevator from his office down to the front section of a bar that bears his name. In fact, most of the businesses in the atrium, where tourists shop and take photos of one another, bear the Trump moniker.
“That’s his TV area, and if you want to get him, that’s where he’ll do it,” according to one of several news producers and executives who described the arrangement to the Los Angeles Times. “You can say no and not get him.”
Trump will make an exception for his first late-night talk show appearance as a candidate. He’ll go to the NBC studio at Rockefeller Center for his guest shot on “The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon” on Sept. 11, according to a network spokesperson.
A spokesperson for Trump declined to comment on how the campaign handles media requests.
Roger Stone, a veteran Republican political strategist who until recently advised Trump, said the candidate’s strong appeal to viewers gives him the leverage to have the networks come to him or even allow him to phone in on morning programs and the Sunday public affairs shows. (Only one program, “Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace,” refused to put a Trump call on the air; Wallace insists interviews be done on-camera).
“It’s the most brilliant use of free media I’ve ever seen,” Stone said of Trump’s campaign. “He’s a showman.”
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, believes having the Trump Tower interior as a backdrop for Trump’s TV interviews helps make a striking visual case for his candidacy.
“It’s a form of credentialing,” she said. “He is branding himself as a successful billionaire businessman who knows how to build things and puts his name on them. He uses that line of argument when people challenge him about being able to build a wall [along the U.S.-Mexico border].”
Jamieson said getting the networks to cater to Trump’s chosen location is “roughly equivalent” to an incumbent president only giving interviews at the White House.
The only other candidate in history who has used free media as effectively as Trump was Perot, the Texas business entrepreneur who ran as a third-party candidate for president in 1992, according to Jamieson, who has written several books on political communication.
Perot became a popular network news booking, once spending two hours sparring with Katie Couric on NBC’s “Today,” and taking calls from viewers live on the air.
“Perot held audiences, and it was the reason he continued to get free media access,” Jamieson said. “He was interesting. He was different. Part of what is refreshing about Perot is what’s refreshing about Trump. He says things other people do not say.”
TV producer Jeff Gaspin, who as an NBC executive worked with Trump on “The Apprentice,” compared the candidate’s ridiculing of his Republican competitors to former “American Idol” judge Simon Cowell’s pronouncements on terrible singing performances. Trump described Jeb Bush as dull and “low-energy,” questioned the intelligence of Rick Perry and called Sen. Lindsey Graham “a stiff.”
“Why was ‘American Idol’ so successful? Because Simon said ‘that’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard’ and made 16-year-olds cry,” Gaspin said. “You weren’t allowed to do that. When were you allowed in a political campaign to make fun of your opponents? Trump has got that unfiltered honesty. He’s the Simon Cowell of politics.”
How long can Trump ride this free media wave?
TV news producers say it’s like any other hit TV show. Once the ratings for Trump’s appearances start to subside, programs will turn to him less. His campaign will have to decide at that point whether to pursue a TV ad strategy in the early primary states where his well-funded opponents are likely to run negative commercials against him.
“In some odd way, advertising would be bad for Trump because it would look as if someone was calculating to put his message together,” said Jamieson who believes the candidate’s spontaneity is his strength, especially when compared to the cautious, poll-driven TV performances of most establishment politicians.
But Stone believes Trump can maintain his authenticity even if a paid media campaign becomes necessary to keep up his momentum and combat attacks.
“It depends on the quality of the spots,” he said. “I think you can capture the essence of Trump with a 30-second spot. He sure won’t need a script, I can tell you that.”