Tuesday April 6 9:18 PM ET
While other American CEOs make headlines with layoffs and legal woes, Donald Trump is reveling in the spectacular success of "The Apprentice."
Trump Tower, Trump best sellers and now Trump TV. Even viewers who turn up their noses at other reality series find something intriguing about the show, which is down to the final four contestants on Thursday's show (9 p.m. EDT).
"I have 'You're fired!' down pat, and that little hand gesture, how his hand flicks out," said Mike Lyon, 60, a Southern California property owner and manager.
"Like it or not, this guy has made it," Lyon said. "And some of this stuff that he's preaching, I figure it's part of his business acumen."
That sounds about right to Trump, No. 205 on Forbes magazine's list of the very rich with $2.5 billion.
"What I do is I build great buildings that are very, very successful. I'm worth $6 billion and people, maybe they can't relate to that, but they want to do that and be that," Trump told The Associated Press.
"I think that's one of the reasons the show itself is so successful," said Trump, whose unfettered expressions of ego and excess seem only to increase his public stock.
He brushes away questions about financial problems at his New Jersey casino property: "It's 1 percent of my business, a very small part. Within a relatively short period it will be as good as the rest of my business."
Either way, it seems unimportant to the 20.2 million people who made the show No. 5 in the most recent ratings. Like a business-suited Elvis, Trump retains his star quality through fat and lean times.
"I guess I should have seen this coming. Maybe reality TV is the very thing Donald Trump was born to do," said Robert Thompson, head of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.
"I thought Trump was going to stink it all up but the cheese factor he brings to it, this kind of uber-boss dorkishness, is just perfect for the show. And he's obviously having such a grand old time doing it," Thompson said.
Graciously, Trump isn't taking sole credit for "The Apprentice," which is down to finalists Amy Henry of Austin, Texas; Kwame Jackson of New York; Nick Warnock of Los Angeles and Bill Rancic of Chicago. The series ends April 15 with a two-hour live episode in which Trump announces who will get to work for him.
"Viewers like the people on the show, they like the magnificence of New York City and the unattractiveness at the same time," Trump said. And then there's series creator Mark Burnett, the reality mogul ("Survivor") whom Trump calls "a real visionary."
"Mark Burnett and company are really the masters of the art form," agrees Thompson. Besides coming up with a workplace concept instantly familiar to viewers, "The Apprentice" is another well-cast Burnett show.
"When you're asking people to write their own dialogue, be their own acting coaches, casting is everything," said Thompson. "Omarosa didn't happen accidentally."
That's the imperious Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth, whose scheming alienated fellow contestants and entertained viewers. Her martyrdom after a brush with falling plaster was an instant reality TV classic. She makes a return appearance on Thursday's show.
Not everyone, however, is enjoying Trump's fantasy business camp. Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, associate dean of the Yale School of Management, is appalled by what he sees as unethical acts that go unchecked by Trump.
Obvious sore spots: Contestants pushing "celebrity" autographs from one of their team to make money; female contestants' reliance on *** appeal to gain the edge; Trump's firing of a player who chose candor over loyalty.
"It's really showing the inside of wicked corporate life," Sonnenfeld said. "Each episode ends with the wrong answer, misconduct and a celebration of misconduct" by Trump.
Enron whistleblower Sherron Watkins avoids watching the program but said she's heard enough about it to second Sonnenfeld.
"What Enron and 'The Apprentice' are saying is, 'It's all about you, look at how you can win, how you can win short term,'" Watkins told The AP. "That's a horrible lesson."
But it can be an illuminating one, said one viewer. Andrea Davis, 28, production coordinator for marketing and advertising at California State University, Fullerton, said she was intrigued by the autograph ploy.
"Is that false advertising? ... It's a good representation of ethical choices you have to make, and sometimes you cross the line," Davis said.
Trump himself rejects criticism of the show's values.
"I think it's highly ethical as to what the contestants are doing. On occasion they do seem to go over the line, and they get smacked pretty hard when they do," he said.
Trump and "The Apprentice" will get the chance to display further good behavior and prove they're more than one-season wonders. NBC, which is banking on the show to rescue Thursday after "Friends" wraps this year, has signed Trump for "Apprentice II."
"I'm having a lot of fun. I'm not going to give up my day job, but I'm having a lot of fun," Trump said.
So why doesn't the series have his name in the title, in the grand manner of every other Trump project?
"I don't know how that slipped by," Trump said. A pause, then he continues: "Everyone knows who's in it, so what difference does it make."
On the Net: http://www.nbc.com