AP Television Writer
There is something Donald Trump says he doesn’t know.
Trump has welcomed a reporter to his 26th-floor corner office in Trump Tower to talk about “All-Star Celebrity Apprentice.” And here in person, this one-of-a-kind TV star, billionaire businessman, ubiquitous brand mogul and media maestro strikes a softer pose than he has typically practiced in his decades on public display.
Relaxed behind a broad desk whose mirror sheen is mostly hidden by stacks of paper that suggest work is actually done there, Trump is pleasant, even chummy, with a my-time-is-your-time easiness greeting his guest.
He even contradicts his status as a legendary know-it-all with this surprising admission: There’s a corner of the universe he doesn’t understand.
The ratings woes of NBC, which airs his show, are on Trump’s mind at the moment, and as he hastens to voice confidence in the network’s powers-that-be, he marvels at the mysteries of the entertainment world.
“If I buy a great piece of real estate and do the right building, I’m really gonna have a success,” he says. “It may be MORE successful or LESS successful, but you can sort of predict how it’s gonna do. But show business is like trial and error! It’s amazing!”
He loves to recall the iffy prospects for “The Apprentice” when it debuted in January 2004. With show biz, he declares, “You NEVER know what’s gonna happen.”
Except, of course, when you do.
“I do have an instinct,” he confides. “Oftentimes, I’ll see shows go on and I’ll say, ‘That show will never make it,’ and I’m always right. And I understand talent. Does anybody ask me? No. But if they did, I would be doing them a big service. I know what people want.”
So maybe he does know it all. In any case, lots of people wanted “The Apprentice.” In its first season, it averaged nearly 21 million viewers each week.
And it gave Trump a signature TV platform that clinched his image as corporate royalty. He presided in a mood-lit stagecraft boardroom where celebrity subjects addressed him as “Mr. Trump” and shrank at that dismissive flick of his wrist and dreaded catchphrase, “You’re fired.”
The two-hour premiere of “All-Star Celebrity Apprentice” (tonight at 9 p.m.) starts by rallying its 14 veteran contenders in the even more evocative setting of the 2,000-year-old Egyptian Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
There, grandly, Trump receives such returning players as Gary Busey, Stephen Baldwin, LaToya Jackson and reality mean queen Omarosa.
Soon, teammates are chosen by team leaders Bret Michaels and Trace Adkins. Their first assignment: concoct a winning recipe for meatballs, then sell more of them than the rival team.
This is the 13th edition of the “Apprentice” franchise, which has now slipped to less than one-third its original viewership, according to Nielsen Co. figures. But even an audience matching last season’s 6.26 million viewers would be pleasant news for NBC, which has recently fallen to fifth place in prime time, behind even Spanish-language Univision.
“I could probably do another show when I don’t enjoy ‘The Apprentice’ anymore,” says the 66-year-old Trump, mulling his TV future. “I have been asked by virtually every network on television to do a show for them. But there’s something to sticking with what you have: This is a good formula. It works.”
Years before “The Apprentice,” Trump had hit on a winning formula for himself: Supercharge his business success with relentless self-promotion, putting a human face — his! — on the capitalist system, and embedding his persona in a feedback loop of performance and fame.
Since then, he has ruled as America’s larger-than-life tycoon and its patron saint of material success.
Which raises the question: Does he play a souped-up version of himself for his audience as Donald Trump, a character bigger and broader than its real-life inspiration?
He laughs, flashing something like a you-got-me smile.
“Perhaps,” he replies.
“Not consciously. But perhaps I do. Perhaps I do.”