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How The WGA Strike Of 2007 Brought Donald Trump To Power

A light skinned man with blond hair in a dark suit smiles and gives a thumbs up as he stands in front of a board which says The Celebrity Apprentice
Donald Trump at the Celebrity Apprentice red carpet event on Jan. 20, 2015, in New York City.
(Rob Kim
Getty Images)
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It may seem like crackpot Hollywood history, but, as they say, this one is inspired by true events: You can draw a straight line from the last Writers Guild of America strike in 2007 to Donald Trump’s presidential election.

Put simply: If there’s no WGA strike 15 years ago, Trump’s reality TV stardom goes away, and because he’s no longer as famous, he doesn’t have a base upon which he could run for the nation’s highest office.

Yes, there are many factors that influence world history, but what is true is that before November 2007, Donald Trump was a fading reality TV star. But the 2007 strike gave new life to his failed The Apprentice series, which NBC had pulled from its schedule after steadily sinking ratings.

The spinoff — The Celebrity Apprentice — ran for seven seasons, reestablishing Trump not only as a TV celebrity but also leading millions to believe he was a successful and shrewd businessman. Trump rode the show all the way to his famous escalator campaign launch speech. In 2016, he was elected president.

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The WGA strike effect

A sign being held by a a light skinned man in a white T shirt and black baseball hat says "on strike." Behind him a sign says 'The Tonight Show" in gold letters.
Writers Guild of America members and supporters picket near the Tonight Show with Jay Leno theater at NBC studios in 2008.
(David McNew
Getty Images)

As we’re currently seeing with today’s strike, when the WGA declared its stoppage in 2007, production was immediately hit. Many thought the strike would be brief. It wasn’t. After a few months, dozens of shows simply ran out of scripts and couldn’t produce new episodes.

Steve Carell, the star of NBC’s The Office, refused to cross WGA picket lines, in apparent violation of Screen Actors Guild rules saying actors were obligated to show up to work during a writers strike.

The show had filmed only eight of its 25 planned episodes before the strike; the show that followed The Office on NBC’s Thursday night schedule, Scrubs, had completed 11 of 18 planned episodes.

Pretty soon, NBC had a one-hour hole to fill. And it looked in its discards for the answer — an answer like reality TV, which is considered “unscripted” and not covered under the WGA collective bargaining agreement.

The success of The Apprentice

From left, a man with a combover wears a long blue tie and suit jacket next to a woman with dark hair, dangling earrings and a plunging neckline black satin dress. Next to her a man wears a dark turtleneck and a pin striped jacket, he has a gray goatee. To his left, a younger man has a button-down shirt and jacket, he has his arm around a woman who has a champagne-tone sleeveless dress with a flower appliqué and red hair. All have light-tone skin.
Donald Trump, his then girlfriend Melania Knauss, actor Dennis Hopper, publisher Jason Binn and actress Victoria Duffy (L-R) attend a party for "The Apprentice" on Feb. 26, 2004 at Bliss in West Hollywood.
(Amanda Edwards
Getty Images)

In the '90s, when Survivor creator Mark Burnett first approached Trump about taking part in a competition show about people’s business acumen, to be called The Apprentice, Trump said reality television "was for the bottom-feeders of society." He later overcame his misgivings, however, and The Apprentice premiered on NBC in January 2004. It was an immediate ratings hit.

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That first season attracted more than 20 million viewers, but the audience declined steadily and sharply; by 2007, The Apprentice had lost nearly two-thirds of its viewers. Trump falsely claimed that The Apprentice was still winning its time slot in its sixth season in 2007 (some single years had multiple seasons), but NBC knew the show’s popularity had waned.

In May of that year, after seeing that NBC hadn’t placed The Apprentice on its fall schedule, Trump told the network he was “moving on” to another, unnamed TV venture before NBC could cancel the series.

NBC held out hope for another Trump partnership, and no sooner had the network and Trump parted ways that reality television producer Ben Silverman was named co-chairman for NBC Entertainment.

Do the stories that Hollywood tells about itself really reflect what's going on?

In July, the network, Burnett and Trump announced an Apprentice spin-off was in the works.

In The Hollywood Reporter’s history of the 2007-08 strike, Silverman said he wasn’t sure if Trump would come back.

“I came up with the idea of doing Celebrity Apprentice,” Silverman said. “I reached out to Mark Burnett, who said, ‘There’s no way Donald will want to be around other celebrities. He has to be the biggest celebrity.’ And I said, ‘Actually, he’s going to be the biggest celebrity because he’s going to be the boss.’ I called up Trump and he agreed.”

Four months later, the WGA went on strike, chiefly over payments for shows premiering on the Internet.

Reinvigoration of Trump's career

In January 2008, two months into the writers strike, The Celebrity Apprentice premiered on NBC. The ratings were half of what they had been for The Apprentice, but were good enough to keep the show on the air with Trump as its host for seven more years — even after the strike ended.

It reinvigorated Trump’s career, and made him both richer and even more famous. In its 2020 investigation into Trump’s tax records, The New York Times reported that Trump “earned some $197 million directly” from The Apprentice and The Celebrity Apprentice, along with “an additional $230 million [that] flowed from the fame associated with it,” including Trump’s earning a combined $1 million for touting Double Stuf Oreos and Domino’s Pizza.

When he eventually announced that he was running for president, in 2015, the outsider candidate wasn’t taken seriously by the political elite. But his name recognition and imperious “You’re fired!” style — largely tied to his reality TV work — gave him a huge advantage.

NBC ultimately canceled the show, citing his presidential bid and racist comments he made in his campaign.

In a statement at the time, NBC said: “Due to the recent derogatory statements by Donald Trump regarding immigrants, NBCUniversal is ending its business relationship with Mr. Trump. At NBC, respect and dignity for all people are cornerstones of our values.”

But by then Trump was a household name. He was elected president the next year.

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John Horn, entertainment reporter and host of our weekly podcast Retake, explores whether the stories that Hollywood tells about itself really reflect what's going on?

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