'Apprentice': A Survivor

The Baltimore Sun

Maybe after all this time (seven months since the last edition) and a steady, unremitting, grinding and pitiless decline in audience favor, a refresher is in order.

So here goes.

The Apprentice: Once the most important program on NBC and a showcase for the world's most unstoppable ego! The future of television! The replacement for Friends! The new king of Thursday nights! An international phenomenon! An advertiser's best friend! Creator of indelible catchphrases ("You're fired!").

And, incidentally, when it first launched almost exactly four years ago, not a bad show, either. Brimming with irresistible cheese, bad hair and hilarious hooey -- The Donald! -- The Apprentice was smartly produced and reasonably entertaining. Roughly 21 million people seemed to agree, and for a brief and entirely surreal period, The Apprentice wasn't only a major hit but a cultural bellwether, too.

Hmmm, the chin-strokers mused: What did this mad rush for wealth and a place at the elbow of Donald Trump say about modern American life?

Hmmm, really nothing, and when The Apprentice returns for a seventh "celebrity" edition tonight, it's good to recall that heady moment when we were young, foolish and gullible.

Or at least when NBC was.

In any event, we've moved on and so has the network, sort of. No one at NBC is promising big numbers for the seventh edition. No one -- not even Trump -- expects this one to vanquish Grey's Anatomy, which returns next week with fresh episodes. What's most amazing, simply, is that The Apprentice is back at all. Few programs have toppled so drastically and so quickly (to 7 million viewers for the sixth edition) without catching a bullet.

The Apprentice hasn't only survived, but it's back to where it all pretty much started -- 9 p.m. Thursdays.

Why this improbable rise from the ashes? Simply that network TV -- NBC, in particular -- has changed profoundly in the past seven months, and The Apprentice -- with or without celebrities -- fits neatly into the game plan of the moment. With the writers' strike possibly continuing for months, NBC will need to put something on the air. Why not this "something"?

In a recent phone interview from Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., a vacationing and slightly chastened Trump explained that the real problems began a couple years ago when "the network milked the hell out of it, [as ABC] did with [Who Wants to Be a] Millionaire. When you put three on in one season -- and Martha [Stewart] -- that's too much. Frankly, they paid me a lot of money, but [I said], 'Are you guys crazy?' The whole thing was ridiculous."

When the franchise started to decline, NBC entertainment chief Kevin Reilly saw an opportunity to rebuild Thursday back into an all-comedy (and ER) night. The Apprentice flew off to other spots on the schedule, while already disaffected viewers had little inclination to follow. Sunday at 10 p.m. effectively became a coffin, where the sixth edition was expected to go to its final resting place.

Then fate -- as fate has a funny way of doing in TV -- intervened. Reilly, who had declined to renew the show, was fired and replaced by Ben Silverman, who'd helped to bring Survivor -- along with Apprentice producer Mark Burnett -- to American TV. As a first order of business, Silverman not only renewed The Apprentice, but gave it a two-year commitment.

This means that unless Silverman decides to explore other professional options -- highly unlikely in the near term -- The Apprentice is with us for a long time to come. Suffice it to say, Trump has nothing but nice things to say about the guy who replaced Reilly, who's now at Fox. Silverman, he says, has already reversed three major mistakes of the prior administrations. The move to Sunday, where young viewers abandoned it, is at the top of this list.

The Apprentice has indeed moved back to New York (filmed once again at Trump Tower), while a few more key changes are expected, celebrity contestants notwithstanding. The boardroom was enlarged, along with those cat-clawing, back-stabbing sessions -- the most memorable part of the program, which always ended with the "You're fired!" flourish. (Also, an adjoining room has been added where winners can sit and watch the losers sweat it out before the ceremonial beheading.)

Will all this be enough to save the show that was once destined to save a whole network? Consider this: In the nights and weeks ahead, as the writers' strike chokes off the supply of "scripted" shows, NBC will be stuffed with so much unscripted stuff -- Deal or No Deal, 1 vs. 100, American Gladiators and many more -- that even The Apprentice might start to look fun and fresh by comparison.

Verne Gay writes for Newsday.


Watch a clip from the show at baltimoresun.com/apprentice

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