How Donald Trump’s ‘Apprentice’ Stake Puts NBC in a Seriously Awkward Spot

“It’s somewhat disconcerting, because broadcast networks do have to look at equal time,” former network exec Tom Nunan says

Last Updated: December 9, 2016 @ 9:18 AM

NBC had a great run with Donald Trump back in the day, but the bill is now due.

The president-elect is going to keep his executive producer title and fees on the new “Celebrity Apprentice,” his office confirmed Thursday. “Mr. Trump has a big stake in the show and conceived of it with Mark Burnett,” spokeswoman Hope Hicks wrote in a statement. The new version of “Celebrity Apprentice,” now with Arnold Schwarzenegger as host, will premiere Jan. 2.

This creates an awkward situation, at the very least. NBC said in 2015 that it was going to sever all business ties with the irascible reality star-turned-politician after he made “derogatory statements” about immigrants.  “At NBC, respect and dignity for all people are cornerstones of our values,” the network said, explaining its decision to dump Trump as “Celebrity Apprentice” host and purveyor of beauty pageants.

So now the network will be out promoting the premiere of a series executive produced by the future president, whom executives have publicly accused of disparaging and disrespecting millions of people and being incompatible with their corporate values. And this just weeks after an old tape of Trump bragging about groping women led to major embarrassment for NBC, which sacked Billy Bush from “Today” as a result. (This would also appear to make Trump the boss of Schwarzenegger, although that counts as mere comic relief in the larger context.)

For Trump, keeping his “Apprentice” ties seems part of his overall modus operandi. While the president-elect says he has sold off his stocks, the rest of his business empire, which Forbes estimates gives him a net worth of $3.7 billion, will be under the control of his adult children in what Trump has dubbed a blind trust. Trump’s deals with Burnett go back many years, long before he began his White House bid in 2015. Given the extent of the rest of Trump’s holdings, the reportedly less-than-$100,000-per-episode he will receive for “Apprentice” counts as chump change.

But for NBC, this has all the hallmarks of a major mess in the making. While the network declined comment, one insider pointed out that NBC and entertainment chief Bob Greenblatt consider their “Apprentice” business partner to be Burnett, not Trump. But that’s a distinction that’s going to be lost on the average person wondering why NBC went out of its way to attack the president-elect but will still give him a nice title card on a prime-time show.

The odd relationship could even raise concerns over equal-time rules from the FCC.

“At minimum, it’s confusing,” said Tom Nunan, a film and TV producer and former network programming boss who now teaches at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. “At maximum, it’s somewhat disconcerting, because broadcast networks do have to look at equal time. If there’s a perception that Trump could somehow be influencing prime time television in any way, shape or form, there could be on the Democrats’ side a call for equal time, which gets really complicated.”

And then there’s the Trump unpredictability factor. Will he try to “Boeing” NBC, the same way he did the makers of Air Force One? Trump berated Boeing over what he believes are excessive jet development costs. “Cancel order!” Trump tweeted this week, rattling the airline industry (and Boeing share prices) with fewer than 140 characters. What if Trump decides he doesn’t like the timeslot for “Celebrity Apprentice”? Or believes that Burnett and his team aren’t producing the show as well as they used to? Will the president’s 17 million Twitter followers be treated to “Fire Greenblatt!” or “Burnett – sad!” tweets? What sort of contortions might then be forced for NBC and its corporate parent, the telecommunications giant Comcast?

It’s a weird circumstance, to put it mildly — but it may be just a glimpse of things to come in the Trump Administration.

“Strange days, is really the best thing I can say,” Nunan said. “Although it’s technically legal for the president to have private holdings, the protocols around this are pretty clear, and [Trump] seems to want to bust all of these protocols.”

One especially strange outcome is that the Leader of the Free World will be keeping his close ties to the world of Gary Busey and “it’s somewhat surprising that he would even want to have a continuing relationship [with ‘Apprentice’] because I think it actually undermines him, and his credibility, to continue to be perceived as a reality celebrity,” Nunan added. “But on the other hand, it’s hard to be surprised by anything he does these days.”