'Apprentice' offers affluent audience to advertisers

When NBC launched “The Apprentice” in 2004, advertisers were still holding their noses when it came to reality TV.

Sure, they’d dived into the form, and skeins like “Survivor” and “American Idol” were fully embraced by media buyers. Yet there was still a lingering mindset among advertisers that unscripted fare attracted lower-rent demos.

At NBC, that wasn’t far from the truth — “Fear Factor” wasn’t exactly attracting the Lexus crowd. But then came “The Apprentice.”

The Donald Trump-fronted competish skein sent a strong message to Madison Avenue: Reality TV can offer the same upscale environment as a top-tier drama.

Soon enough, “The Apprentice” was second only to “The West Wing” in attracting adults 18-49 making more than $75,000 or $100,000 a year. With its comedy fortunes on Thursday starting to wane, NBC even skedded the show at 9 p.m. on the night — in the signature timeslot once occupied by “Seinfeld.”

Critics chastised NBC for killing “Must See TV.” But NBC said the definition of “Must See TV” had simply changed.

“‘The Apprentice’ was very much in the wheelhouse of what NBC’s target audience is,” notes Brad Adgate, research topper for ad-buying firm Horizon Media. “It’s very affluent, very urban. It has the same audience profile as other NBC shows like ‘The Office.’”

“Apprentice” creator-exec producer Mark Burnett says he was simply trying to get out of the wilderness for a while when he thought up the show.

“Having done nine seasons of ‘Eco-Challenge’ and six seasons of ‘Survivor,’ I had a desire to work in a city setting like a normal human being,” he explains. “What I didn’t realize with the show was, by using New York as a backdrop and creating a real thinking-person’s show, we ended up skewing the demos in the high end.”

The format — which has dispersed all over the globe, with versions spawned in far-away places like Nigeria and Estonia — further solidified Burnett’s reputation as a reality TV heavyweight. And it also put Trump back in the limelight.

At NBC, as “The Apprentice” hit its stride on Thursdays, the Peacock took the opportunity to overhaul its reality strategy. Out were the grossfests and in was a new generation of serialized, appointment entries.

“For us as a whole, it defined NBC reality,” says Craig Plestis, NBC’s exec VP of alternative programming.

With such an attractive aud, the product integration opportunities started flooding the show. By season two, every challenge was tied to a marketing partner. Advertisers would frequently use the show to launch new products — and the impact on sales was noticeable, says NBC Agency prexy John Miller.

But that may be where the show started to alienate viewers. Then came the decision to simultaneously launch a Martha Stewart version of “The Apprentice” in fall 2005 on Wednesdays.

“We may have overused the franchise when we had one on in the spring, and then both Martha and Trump in the fall, and then another one the same season,” Miller says. Ultimately, the show should probably only run once a year, he adds.

Burnett also took issue with how NBC scheduled both versions that fall. “To have ‘Martha’ on at 8 on a Wednesday and have the Trump ‘Apprentice’ on Thursdays at 9 — having them both on adjacent nights didn’t work,” Burnett says. “And however you look at it, ‘The Apprentice’ is not an 8 o’clock show.”

As it often does, rampant schedule reshuffling also took a toll. With the mothership’s ratings tanking, NBC decided to move Trump and Co. out of their Thursday home in an attempt to relaunch a comedy franchise there.

“The Apprentice” first moved to Monday, then the following year to Sundays.

“Moving any franchise around isn’t healthy in any way,” Burnett asserts.

By May 2007, the ratings had dipped low enough that NBC was ready to let the skein go, and Trump had told reporters he was also moving on, too. The franchise, which had burned bright just three years earlier, appeared dead.

“It was more indecision than decision,” Plestis says. “It never was canceled, though.”

Nevertheless, the decision to revive the show came after Ben Silverman joined the Peacock as co-chairman of NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios. As one of his first acts, Silverman revived “The Apprentice,” but with a celebrity twist.

“I must admit, having lived through five ‘Apprentices,’ I wasn’t entirely sure (Silverman) was correct,” Miller says, “but he proved to be right.”

Celeb “Apprentice” was revived before the writers strike and managed to snag its old Thursday 9 p.m. spot because of the work stoppage (“The Office” took a break). With a revived “Apprentice” on its hands, NBC has already greenlit a second celebrity edition.

“We’re enjoying this ride, and doing good with the format,” Plestis says.

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