When Donald Trump's reality series The Apprentice debuted in 2004 on NBC, it featured a group of everyday people trying to win a job with the Donald. As time passed, the Celebrity Apprentice version of the show grew in popularity and eclipsed the original version. Now The Apprentice is back, sans celebrity, giving hard-working Americans a chance to live the American dream in these troubled financial times. The Apprentice returns with a two-hour season premiere on Thursday, September 16 at 8 PM ET on NBC, which will feature 16 new contestants who are all struggling in this economic climate. Series host Donald Trump and executive producer Mark Burnett recently held a conference call to discuss this new season and here's what they had to say.
Donald Trump and executive producer Mark Burnett discuss The Apprentice
So obviously economic times are so different than when we first saw The Apprentice and even since the last season we saw with non-celebrities in 2007 and it seems like the new season really reflects these different times. So how has the show changed and been updated since we last saw a regular season of The Apprentice?
Donald Trump: Well as you know what happened is that we had great success with the regular Apprentice. We then switched over to the celebrity format which was a similar show but with celebrities. And now we have had so many requests from so many people because of the times, because of obviously the country is not doing well, the economic times are not good. And if you remember when we started The Apprentice it was this big hit but it was also in a different world. It was you know times were booming and now times are just the opposite of booming. So many people wanted to see this show reflective of the current times and that's what we've done. I mean we have people that went to the best schools and they don't have a job. People that had really good jobs before and they have five kids in one case and doesn't have a job, has zero income coming in. And you know it's both sad and hopefully educational but it's very sad to see what's happened to some of these kids. And some were really high flyers doing great and now they're totally down and out.
Mark Burnett: I mean an example is we've got someone who got their Masters in Engineering, worked as a mechanical engineer, got downsized in the economy and now has now taken a job as a tow truck driver. Another woman who went to Stanford for cancer research had a job as a cancer researcher. The funding fell through because of the economy and they're taking care of her grandmother and living back in her parent's house. So you know this is a couple of examples that people from top law firms, very top schools just you know the economy hit everybody and the point of The Apprentice this year, you know we thought long and hard about this, is fighting back. You know many, many people lost their jobs and we've got the people who just want to absolutely fight back, willing to go on television, prove themselves. One person will get the job working for Donald Trump and the rest of them will get to show they're worthy. They deserve to be working and they're using the show to market themselves.
We've seen so many interesting personalities in the past, but with now, how do you feel the dynamic of the show changed or even among the contestants with casting you know these desperate young college graduates who don't see a lot of hope in the job market. And then also people in their 40s who have recently lost their jobs.
Mark Burnett: That's the key, and I want to be really clear, we talked about this. Basically we weren't looking for people who were feeling sorry for themselves. Everybody you know who applied had either lost a job or were taking a job they didn't really want. It was a job that they were over qualified for but the common factor in the casting of the show was people who wanted to fight back. You know one of Donald Trump's through-lines in his first book that I read, having worked with him for the past 10 seasons, one of the strongest things Donald will say during The Apprentice is fight back. And that's what we were looking for, right Donald?
Donald Trump: That's exactly right. And we really - I mean it's very impressive, some of the - you know in some cases they're pretty young I call them kids, but they had a tremendous energy and a tremendous spirit for fighting. And not in all cases, a couple of them are you know as you know we shot much of the show and then the finale's going to be live but we just finished shooting much of the show. The energy and the almost the survival of some of these people is unbelievable. Unbelievable, where they have families where the families are just devastated by the fact that they have no money, they have nothing. But they have great educations and they had a great past. So it's both we would like to say it's inspirational, at the same time it's very sad.
The show also promised us some different rewards this time around, some more meaningful to improve their lives which before we would see things like extravagant dinners, you know vacations, celebrity interaction. So what kind of rewards are you going to offer the contestants this time around?
Donald Trump: Well two things we do this time that's different, and this was Mark's idea is we have great sponsors of the show, Macy's and PVH, that's Phillips Van Heusen, the biggest shirt company in the world and ties and lots of others. And what we're doing this time is we're giving them interviews with the top people at the various big companies and you know in other words they're going to meet with the top executives, like Terry Lundgren who's the chairman of Macy's and the head of PVH, you know we have some just absolutely amazing people. So like as an example Allen Sirkin who is the chairman of PVH and others, so we're doing that and the big thing is going to be they're going to work for me for a period of a year at a very high salary, whoever wins.
Mark Burnett: And every week the project - the winning project manager's reward every week is to meet with a major industry titan in various industries. I mean Donald already mentioned Terry Lundgren, also Steve Forbes. Russell Simmons, people in different areas who can really - you know it's like a motivational speech from winners to give these people a chance and it's amazing how they come out of these rewards energized. You know some of the interesting things during the filming, was a couple of them, even though they were on a TV show and they're doing a task, you know which is part of the job interview, the comments we were getting was it feels so great to be back at work. You know and of course they're not really at work, they're competing for a job but the feeling and the energy of being back at work in the middle of a business task just gave them a real sense of uplift and it was really great to see you know.
Given what the average Americans have faced during the economic crisis, how will this season help to give viewers more faith in corporate America?
Donald Trump: Well I think that's what we're trying to show or portray, we're looking at - you know I'm not a big fan of the way the country's being run to be honest with you and I think that's got to come through also. I'm not a fan at all of what's happening and we discuss that and we discuss politics and we discuss other countries ripping us off. And we go a long way and so when you say if the faith in the country, I think it's the faith in the fact that we're going to end up changing the country. Because if we don't this country's in big trouble and I feel that - you know I feel that very strongly.
Can you both talk about how the economy had an impact on the show itself and what changes that you felt were necessary in such a financially strapped time?
Mark Burnett: Really, it's the same Apprentice exactly with the difference is the reward as we mentioned rather than going out for lavish dinners for which it was a different time in the country, it really is the motivation of getting to meet with business leaders who can actually help you. Additionally the people who get fired each week are also helped to find their way, to find a replacement or a better job which has you know been through The Apprentice and very, very helpful for them. But the actual core of the show is the same show. It's not a show where Donald Trump suddenly gives them a hug every five minutes, you know and a pat on the back. It's the same Donald Trump and it's about fighting back and I think the through line you know as a naturalized American why I love and why I chose this country is the fighting spirit. Nothing keeps America down. America keeps going, the American people are what the country is. And the American people are fighting people, that's what built the country. And that's what you see in The Apprentice. People have had a really tough time, being really kicked in the ass because of the economy, but who are fighting back and are willing to go on television, vie for a job knowing that only one will get that job. But the others are proving themselves.
Mr. Trump, can you talk briefly about how you relate to being given a second chance and how that can make someone a better business person?
Donald Trump: Well in the early 90s I was - you know I owed billions of dollars in debt and you know many of my friends and people in the real estate industry were going bankrupt. I never did but I was in serious trouble and you know it came to a point there where now my company is bigger and stronger than it's ever been by far. It's been you know amazing period of time, in fact even now we're big buyers of real estate as opposed to sellers, this isn't a good time to be selling but it's a great time to be buying because of our very strong position. And I talk about that, I relate to it because I can relate to it and Mark actually made the statement, he said you know if you had all clear sailing all through your life, he doesn't think we would have had the huge success that we've had on The Apprentice or that so many people would show up for speeches and other things that I do. And you know I've never even thought of it until he mentioned it but maybe that's true. So it really is - you know these people have to come back. They are in not a good position right now and it's very different from the original Apprentice in that in those cases they were all high flyers and they wanted to fly even higher. And in this case they were high flyers in many cases but they were - but they're down and out, they're really in trouble and it's about coming back and how to come back.
What would you say about the whole group?
Donald Trump: Well I think it's the best Apprentice that we've done since season one. I think the field is terrific, I think we were very careful in getting the field. I also think it's actually Hal a little bit more of a - it's a good plot. I mean it's a better plot. It's a better plot in terms of bad times versus good times. When you're in good times it's less urgent, it's less important. And in a certain way maybe even less exciting. But I think the concept is almost better because of the times that we're living in as opposed to you know five years ago when The Apprentice originally went on, where everybody was doing great. So you know I think it's actually more exciting. I think they market themselves really well.
Mark Burnett: I have to tell you during casting, Donald sat there with myself and the NBC executives and we honestly were listening to story after story of unbelievably educated people. I mean top universities, top law firms who are just on their ass, and I've got to tell you one minute we looked at each other, Donald and I and the NBC executives and said boy, it sure is great to have a job. You know it's just you could really see, and then you look and see well you know they've really got issues, you know they've got children to feed, they've got you know mortgages to try and pay, they've had to sell their possessions and here they are really trying to get themselves back and going. And The Apprentice is one of those methods of trying to get themselves going. I really felt compassion for them, you know?
Donald Trump: I mean a beautiful young woman who went to Stanford Law, did a great job, great student, had a great job at a major law firm and now she's selling cupcakes. You know it's like pretty weird.
Do you find these people are even a little bit more competitive because they've had this setback and now they even have something more to prove, that they can come back?
Donald Trump: Some of them are unbelievable and a couple of them were beaten up pretty badly. But some of these people are unbelievable, the spirit that they have and the fight that they have and they're going to be very successful. You know I have really no doubt that a few of these people are going to be really successful.
Do you think that it's accurate to say that this version of The Apprentice is more relevant and timelier than any season that you've done before or am I guilty of overstating that?
Donald Trump: Well I think it's more important which maybe is a similar word but maybe it's a stronger word. I think it's more important because I think people can see you know - they can see where we are and maybe how to get out of the morass. So I don't know, perhaps relevant is a good term but I think it's actually a - I think it's more important because of what's happening in the world.
I was also just wondering too because originally you know this version was supposed to come back a little bit later in the year but then it was bumped up to premiere you know next week. Did that scheduling change like affect the production of this season at all? Did - was there anything you had to rush a little bit more?
Donald Trump: No, well you know what happened and I can say it maybe more so than Mark, it was supposed to come on in the early spring and when - and we started shooting it. And when NBC saw what was happening with the shooting, it's so good they couldn't believe it and they actually bumped the show in order to put it on early. So they are putting it on you know much earlier than they anticipated. This was going to be the spring and then celebrity was going to be a little bit later than that. And when they saw what we had shot, you know they were reviewing what we had done they liked it so much that they put it on - they moved it way up by you know many months.
Mark Burnett: And yet the production you know actually fell easily into that because we shot early enough that it didn't affect the post schedule at all. So we were on a very normal speed delivery that was always been on with the same team of people. So it actually worked out very well for everybody.
It sounds like a show about hope more than anything else.
Donald Trump: That's a good word actually. We had some people that were lined up literally for four or five days. I think five and a half days, I think there were three people and they waited for five and a half days outside in the heat and you know that time was very, very hot - in the heat trying to get on line. And by the way we gave them credit for that. Those people really got credit because you know you talk about not giving up or fighting, but they waited for five days to do the interview. You know they knew the location and they just camped out. And you know it's really I think hope is an interesting word actually, it's a good word.
Mark Burnett: I think we're very careful with - immediately if we hear someone has applied for the show and they've applied for a bunch of other reality shows to be on television, if their focus is to be on TV we didn't want them. We want people who want to get back to work. So the authenticity of why you applied is a key bet to us. If we got a list of like you'd applied for The Bachelor, and you applied for Big Brother and you know whatever else you'd applied for, some dancing and singing show, clearly you just want to be on TV. That doesn't really work for this because on The Apprentice you may be getting three or four hours' sleep in every 24. It's non-stop. It really is non-stop, I mean even less sleep than Survivor. Survivor, at least it's pitch dark in the jungle half the time so you're sleeping, I don't know, 10 hours a night. On The Apprentice you're genuinely sleeping maybe three hours a night. Because by the time you go to a copy shop to make copies of a major presentation and things are starting at 5:00 in the morning, you've finished up at 3:00 in the morning making copies, you know it's a fast turnaround.
Atlantic City is a good example of what's happening in this country. It was a place where people went to spend money, to make money and it's a different story now. I know that you still have your name on casinos there, have you filmed anything in Atlantic City for this show?
Donald Trump: We very well - we actually have. We have some Atlantic City involvement and we do use it as an example of what happens in the country between the bad economy and competition and life and changes and everything else. You know Atlantic City's been ravaged by the economy and ravaged by you know an inordinate amount of competition brought on because of the economy, because other people legalized other states and areas legalized gambling in order to come up with revenues which they would have never thought they would have done. So Atlantic City is talked about and shown a little bit and we actually are planning to use it even more so on the next Celebrity Apprentice.
Is there anything you guys can say about what sort of challenges the contestants are going to be facing the first few weeks?
Mark Burnett: Sure, you know one thing you also should know, clearly we've been used to the Celebrity Apprentice and we do have some great celebrities in it. We have a great task where they have to form and run a doggie daycare service and Cesar Millan is a judge of that one which is great. We have another one where they have to form a - make an audition for backers of a Broadway show, to raise money for a Broadway show, Kristin Chenoweth is a special guest on that show.
Donald Trump:Kim Kardashian, we have Kim Kardashian. We have a lot of great celebrities on the show throughout the show.
Mark Burnett:Isaac Mizrahi, we also have Liza Minnelli, Kathy Griffin, so you know we have some really good tasks with some great people. You know and you know things like selling ice cream on the streets of New York City, they're designing a modern workspace, you know putting on a fashion show, pedicab service in New York City where they have to get their license. Because you know driving a pedicab around Manhattan is a liability and they have to take to get the actual license and in fact some of them fail to even get the license which doesn't make Trump very happy to begin with. And then they've got to choose where they're going to run their pedicab service, which part of Manhattan makes the most sense, how to market it. So it's stuff that - you know what, Apprentice is basically a three month job interview. Except for you're not relying on the BS of a made up resume and hoping no one checks references. You've actually got to do tasks every week. You can't hide. You either can deliver or you can't deliver.
Are there any green challenges? Any eco-friendly companies that you work with this time?
Donald Trump: We do have one green challenge and it's a terrific - now we're not allowed to speak about it yet because it's you know prior to it airing. But we do have one very, very as you would call it green challenge. You'll be very happy if you're into the green movement.
Was there any contestant who's story or situation particularly resonated with you more than any of the others?
Donald Trump: Well there's one contestant who is a very difficult guy, very smart, a great character frankly which we didn't know when we actually cast him. We didn't know he was going to be this kind of a character. But he's got five kids, a wife who he loved but is seriously thinking about checking out because of his situation. He's got five children and no income and prior to that he had a good income, he had a very good job. And I was asking him, how do you make it with five children, no income and a troubled marriage? How do you do it? I'm asking him. And it's almost become a little bit of a way of life and he wants to get out of it quickly. And he turned out to be an amazing person on the show, an amazing character.
Mark Burnett: I think it's one of those moments in casting where Donald, we looked at each other as did NBC and said wow, it feels great to have a job right now. I mean it's when you meet people like this you realize you know there but for the grace of God go I. You know it's - you know hey, here's a fact though Donald as you said. He chose to be on the show, he got up every morning and he brought it. Way, way better than sitting on the couch crying. You know you've got to get up and fight back, that is the spirit of America. I mean then another person who initially also Stanford grad, cancer researcher who you know lost the funding because of the economic problems and after all that education, you know that work as a cancer researcher, she's now living back with her parents taking care of her grandmother as a day care worker. I mean what an unfortunate turn for the incredible brain, and yet she's out there looking to market herself and make a difference for herself. And these stories by the way we could list person after person, they've all got these stories. But yes, there's a couple in general that jump out, but you know again it's all about fighting back.
With so much riding on the show for the contestants because of the economic downturn, was it harder or more emotional to fire some contestants knowing how much it meant to them?
Donald Trump: I think it was harder. You know it's one thing to fire a celebrity that did a lousy job or was lazy or you know who cares and you know they still make plenty of money in the outside world. To me it's harder to fire somebody like this where you know they're going back to nothing, they had nothing when they came. They put up a good fight in some cases, in some cases less of a good fight, in some cases an unbelievable fight. I find it harder to fire - there's such a down side for these people. You know when I let Scott Hamilton go or any one of the many, many celebrities, you know they go immediately back to their world. And they do very well, you know almost all of them. When you let somebody like this go, it's - it could almost be a negative because it's always really hard to fire the first one or two or three. Because that means you take these people that are not doing well and of the people that are not doing well these people are doing the worst. You know the firing the first one is really devastating. It's very tough you know to be the first. Think of the people, you know they say I was the first one fired out of this group of 15 people, I was the first one fired. And it's - you know so I find it to be - I think it's very, very much harder to fire somebody like this. At the same time they know it's not going to be pretty and they sign on to that.
Mark Burnett: And they want to market themselves and they just got themselves better known than had they been sitting at home with the phone not ringing.
You've talked about the benefit the contestants will be getting from the show as far as a chance of talking to business leaders and the other things that will hopefully help the losing contestants and jobs elsewhere. Have you actually heard of that happening with any of the contestants so far and if so are the episodes going to include any kind of updates about how a fired contestant is doing now or anything like that?
Donald Trump: Well we're not going to be necessarily showing all of these interviews because we don't know that it would be great to show and maybe it's very personal. Maybe they'll do better without having televisions all over these big executives frankly. But we have heard back that some of them have really resulted in a very positive situation for the contestant.
Mark Burnett: And we are planning an update of what happened after The Apprentice for a lot of these people so we can get a sense of you know those who didn't succeed in winning The Apprentice and therefore working for Donald Trump. How they went on and how they got themselves back in the workforce so there will be updates.
Like in the end of each episode or during the reunion show type of thing?
Mark Burnett: No, we're looking at dropping in throughout the season.
Donald Trump and executive producer Mark Burnett will debut the new season of The Apprentice with a two-hour premiere on Thursday, September 16 at 8 PM ET on NBC.