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On Trump's 'Apprentice,' reality wasn't what it seemed

On the show, Donald Trump portrayed a brilliant real estate mogul – even as his businesses went through multiple bankruptcies and contestants complained of sexism and mistreatment.

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    In this 2004 file photo, passersby look at a banner ad for 'The Apprentice' hanging on Trump Tower in New York.
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The skyline shimmers, the music pulses and a helicopter swoops in for a landing.

Oozing authority, the billionaire strides purposefully – in slow-motion, for added impact – toward some important matter of business. Week by week, year by year, 14 seasons of "The Apprentice" or "Celebrity Apprentice" served as a grand homage to all things Trump, running from 2004 to 2015.

Donald Trump the actor made Mr. Trump the businessman seem pretty fabulous. Americans never saw what was taking place behind the scenes – and the businessman-turned-actor-turned politician applied his reality TV skills to generate media success unprecedented in American politics, as The Christian Science Monitor's Linda Feldman noted in April:

Recommended: Trump's reality TV playbook: Seven ways it changed 2016 election

“The Trump campaign has used a whole bunch of tricks from reality television to run his campaign and extend control over other people’s campaigns,“ says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York. The reason this has worked so well for Trump, Professor Thompson says, is that “even though it’s not exactly like his TV show and he doesn’t control everything, he is playing by the rules of reality TV, and the people covering him are largely unconsciously playing by the same reality show rules as well.”

The show offered the future Republican presidential candidate the ultimate opportunity for endless product placement: Contestants fawned over his gilded-to-excess Fifth Avenue apartment, his casinos, golf courses, even his girlfriend and later wife Melania. They promoted his modeling company, his water bottles and other Trump-branded businesses, as the man himself spun out bits of business advice known as "Donaldisms" and bemoaned the daunting task of telling eager young dreamers, "You're fired."

This image of a businessman who was smart, decisive, blunt, benevolent, rich – really rich – and never wrong turned out to be the ideal launching pad for his improbable presidential campaign.

That it didn't always jibe with reality didn't seem to matter to the millions of Americans who turned "The Apprentice" into a national phenomenon. Or to NBC, which reveled in the show's sky-high ratings early on, and kept tinkering with the formula in an effort to revive them in later years.

It turns out that the unseen side of "The Apprentice" was darker: Show insiders have told the AP that in his years as a reality TV boss, Trump repeatedly demeaned women with sexist language, rating female contestants by the size of their breasts and talking about which ones he'd like to have sex with.

And one former contestant, Summer Zervos, said Friday that the candidate made unwanted sexual advances toward her in 2007 when she met with him at a Beverly Hills hotel to talk about a potential job. Ms. Zervos, who had competed on the show in 2006, said Trump became sexually aggressive during their meeting at the hotel.

Recommended: Trump's reality TV playbook: Seven ways it changed 2016 election

Speculation about what kind of conduct or remarks might be lurking in video out-takes from the show has swirled in recent days, since the release of "Access Hollywood" footage showing the GOP candidate joking about grabbing women by the genitals and kissing them without asking. But the owners of the "Apprentice" production company say they cannot legally release footage from the show.

And the reality star's boorish behavior toward women, if caught on camera, was left on the cutting-room floor.

For all of the snickering about the silliness of reality TV, says pop culture expert Robert Thompson, the show was "very, very important to shaping, framing and establishing the person of Donald Trump who would then go on to become the GOP nominee."

"If 'The Apprentice' had never happened, I don't think Donald Trump would be where he is right now politically," says Thompson.

The Wharton graduate already had an outsized reputation when he launched "The Apprentice" in January 2004. By that point, the businessman with a knack for self-promotion had already soared high, fallen from grace, become something of a punchline and was back on the rebound, more focused on licensing his name than building things. He'd eagerly done any number of cameos in movies and TV shows to promote himself as a titan of business.

"My name's Donald Trump and I'm the largest real estate developer in New York," he declared as he launched Season 1, Episode 1 of "The Apprentice" with trademark immodesty. "I've mastered the art of the deal and I've turned the name Trump into the highest quality brand. As the master, I want to pass along my knowledge to somebody else."

That was a fact-check-worthy way to start things off, and his hometown newspaper, The New York Times, obliged by pointing out that while the audacious star of "The Apprentice" might have had the highest profile among the city's developers, plenty of others were doing more and bigger deals.

The Donald had been approached with reality TV proposals before, but nothing clicked until "Survivor" producer Mark Burnett came to him with the idea of a show set in the "urban jungle" of New York.

The original idea was to have a different business executive serve as host every season, with Trump the first, says Jeff Gaspin, head of program strategy at NBC Entertainment in 2001-2002 and later chairman of NBC Entertainment.

"His role was originally fairly small — introduce the challenge then appear in a brief boardroom scene," Gaspin said in an interview. "Donald turned out to be a natural and really loved being on camera. The boardroom scenes were expanded to almost one-third of the show."

People gravitated to the persona of a tough, decisive and irreverent boss who offered "at least the illusion of a pathway to success," says Yale's Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, an associate dean who wrote public critiques of the show for newspapers. 

To many Americans, says Professor Sonnenfeld, the blond billionaire represented the "embodiment of the American dream," harking back to the "Daddy Warbucks" imagery of decades past.

It made for good TV – never mind the reality that the born millionaire got ahead with inherited money, that his casinos were headed for more bankruptcies, that his deals often weren't as lucrative as he'd suggested or that his projects left behind a trail of contractors saddled with unpaid bills. Beyond of all of that, there are the new revelations about the candidate's vulgar comments about women contestants and crew members, and Zervos' allegations that Trump made sexual advances toward her.

Trump himself initially seemed almost gob-smacked by how quickly the show took off.

"I go into the boardroom, I rant and rave like a lunatic to these kids, and I leave and I go off and build my buildings," he told CNN's Larry King in 2004. "And then it gets good ratings, and they pay me. I mean, can you believe this?"

The line between reality and TV on the show was blurry then, and it's still a matter of debate now.

The brash businessman has suggested the show was a hit because it captured the authentic Trump. At other times, though, he's dismissed some of his insulting comments on "The Apprentice" by saying "a lot of that was entertainment."

Reality was nothing like the reel in some aspects.

Despite his on-camera declaration in January 2004 that he'd weathered financial trials and "worked it all out" by using his savvy to come back stronger than ever, Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts Inc. declared bankruptcy that August. In 2009, his casino interests went through another bankruptcy. An additional corporate bankruptcy in 2012 wiped out Trump's remaining stake.

As for the benevolent side showcased on "The Apprentice," The Washington Post reported in August that in almost every instance in which Trump pledged on the show to make a personal contribution to a charity highlighted on "Celebrity Apprentice," the donation really came from sources other than his own pockets.

Eric Dezenhall, a Washington crisis management consultant, says the candidate was adept at the two skills necessary to succeed on TV: "having a rap and being provocative." His rap: "I'm a business wizard." His provocations: unending.

"You scream, you shout," says Dezenhall. "The whole concept of 'you're fired' is isolating your enemy. You're identifying someone bad and exposing them. That's exactly what this campaign is about."

___

AP Television Writer David Bauder in New York contributed to this report.

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