Boast in the machine: "The New Celebrity Apprentice" is flailing in the ratings — and that's not entirely Arnold's fault

Contrary to what "ratings machine DJT" would like us to believe, The Governator inherited a show already in decline

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published February 3, 2017 12:00AM (EST)

 (NBC/Paul Drinkwater)
(NBC/Paul Drinkwater)

Arnold Schwarzenegger, The Terminator. The first Conan the Barbarian, the Last Action Hero — the Reverse Dunkleman?

That is how Donald Trump would like our nation, under God, to view Schwarzenegger, who took over as host of “The Celebrity Apprentice” — sorry, it’s now “The New Celebrity Apprentice” — after the self-professed “ratings machine” declared his intention to run for president and paint the White House orange.

“We had tremendous success on ‘The Apprentice,’” Trump bragged in a highly appropriate and reverential speech at the National Prayer Breakfast. He added, "And they hired a big, big movie star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to take my place. And we know how that turned out. The ratings went right down the tubes; it’s been a total disaster, and Mark [Burnett, creator and executive producer of "The Apprentice,"] will never ever bet against Trump again. And I want to just pray for Arnold, if we can, for those ratings, OK?”

How magnanimous.

To refresh your memory, the “Reverse Dunkleman” term, which I just made up, refers to Brian Dunkleman, the all-but-forgotten first season co-host of “American Idol.” Dunkleman was the bland nice guy overshadowed by Ryan Seacrest’s polished, preening ringmaster; from season 2 onward, Fox tapped Seacrest to pilot “Idol” solo while Dunkleman now hosts "The Dunk Tank" podcast.

The Schwarzenegger situation is a little different in that NBC and Burnett brought him in to attempt to revive an unscripted series that hadn’t aired in two years and that nobody really missed. Think of the shoot-'em-up icon as the meat-headed Heracles to Trump’s spray-tanned Atlas, the muscleman left holding a tiny-mitted titan’s declining franchise.

Schwarzenegger’s tenure on “The New Celebrity Apprentice” hasn’t given NBC much cause to pop the Champagne; America’s head of state of Emergen-C is correct on that point. The Jan. 2 season debuted attracted around almost 5 million viewers and a 1.3 share in the 18 to 49 age demographic (the measure that matters most to advertisers).

Compared with the crowd that showed up for the 2015 season premiere — which amounted to a 2.3 rating in the 18 to 49 demo and 6.8 million viewers — Schwarzenegger’s audience was 27 percent smaller. Indeed, this season the unscripted series that’s doing Trump’s numbers is ABC’s “The Bachelor,” which aired its premiere directly against the debut of “The New Celebrity Apprentice” and attracted 6.6 million viewers and a 2.14 rating in the 18-to-49 demographic.

It’s not unusual for an unscripted show’s audience to grow as a new season progresses; many viewers enjoy tuning in after the weaker contestants have been culled from the herd. That's precisely what’s happening over at “The Bachelor’s” love McMansion, where the groping is consensual and the audience climbed to 7.2 million for Monday night’s rose fest.

Unfortunately for the Governator, ratings for “The New Celebrity Apprentice” haven’t ticked up from its premiere high; it’s averaging about 4.1 million viewers a week this season, with the this week’s episode netting almost 3.7 million viewers.

That's far from Schwarzenegger’s fault, even if from all reports his hosting abilities leave quite a bit to be desired. “The Celebrity Apprentice” was already in decline before NBC elected to hang the series on the Austrian Oak. Considering that Monday’s “The Bachelor” was that night’s highest rated episode, the 6.8 million average for the number of viewers in Trump’s final season (or 7.6 million, if you factor in DVR viewing) looks great, especially these days.

That is, until you look at the ratings for season 20 of “Dancing with the Stars,” which aired in 2015 with 13.10 million viewers on average (after debuting with 14.16 million). “The Voice” premiered its spring 2015 cycle to the tune of 14 million viewers, and on the same night “Survivor” came back with 10 million.

Schwarzenegger’s inability to resurrect a sagging unscripted competition series speaks to the fact that TV makes its stars, but it doesn’t necessarily work the other way around. At this point, some may even be turned off by the mere sight of his name. (He's still listed as an executive producer on "The New Celebrity Apprentice.") And who was crazy enough to think his supporters would watch the show “The New Celebrity Apprentice” without him hunched over in that boardroom chair?

The way the show is trending in the ratings, Arnold is not likely to be back as the host of “The New Celebrity Apprentice.” But if this worn-out show gets buried once and for all in the process, that makes him a hero.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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Arnold Schwarzenegger Donald Trump Nbc The Celebrity Apprentice Tv