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Donald Trump’s White House Takes Page From TV Publicity Playbook

Variety logo Variety 1/26/2017 Daniel Holloway
© Provided by Variety

Back in 2011, former NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Zucker told an audience of television-management students at Drexel University that he greenlit Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice” because he knew the real-estate mogul would be a “wrecking publicity machine” for the reality-competition series. “Even if the show wasn’t good, he was going to say it was good,” Zucker said. “Even if the ratings weren’t good, he was going to say that the ratings were great.”

He added, “Nobody could generate publicity like Donald Trump.”

That remains true today. And now that Trump is in the White House, he is using the same tools that he employed in service of his reality-TV show to promote his presidency.

Trump’s first week in office saw his press secretary engage a reporter in a back-and-forth over multi-platform viewership measurement; the president himself tweet congratulations to Fox News for beating rival CNN in Nielsen ratings; and the White House issue a press release that, like an Emmy campaign ad, presented an onslaught of laudatory quotes attesting to the new administration’s superior quality. (“The Atlantic: Trump’s ‘Coming Out As A Winner On Many Issues.'”)

“He’s not really talking about anything else other than what he’s doing and what other people are saying about what he’s doing,” Lawrence Epstein, a former CBS News finance director who now teaches at Drexel, told Variety. “If you’re marketing a television show, especially a new television show, that’s what you want to do. You don’t want the attention to be focused on [anything else], so you’re not going to comment about it. You’re going to talk about what’s new and exciting about your show.”

Trump is adept at driving the conversation back to himself. Saturday, as millions of demonstrators marched around the country to protest his day-old presidency, Trump dispatched press secretary Sean Spicer to the White House briefing room to falsely dispute accurate reports that Friday’s inauguration had drawn a smaller crowd than Barack Obama’s in 2009. The move effectively drew press attention away from the march, as some networks cut live to Spicer and his comments dominated discussion on the Sunday-morning public-affairs shows. After Spicer addressed reporters, Ari Fleischer, CNN commentator and former White House press secretary under George W. Bush, tweeted, “This is called a statement you’re told to make by the President. And you know the President is watching.”

On Monday, Spicer returned to the briefing room to take questions from the press for the first time. When confronted about his false crowd-size claims, Spicer pivoted to viewership, asserting incorrectly that Trump’s inauguration was watched more than Obama’s or Ronald Reagan’s. “I’m pretty sure that Reagan didn’t have YouTube, Facebook, or the internet,” Spicer said, arguing that a combination of the 30.7 million total television viewers of inauguration coverage reported by Nielsen and the 16.9 million digital views reported by CNN eclipsed all previous presidents’ inaugurals. In reality, the Nielsen number is an average of total viewers per minute and the CNN number is a tally of video starts — two distinct measurements that count two very different things.

Trump is a connoisseur of TV ratings and a master at spinning them. When he hosted “The Apprentice,” he was known to call trade reporters the day after episodes aired to kibitz about ratings. Speaking at the Television Critics Association press tour in 2015, Trump claimed — incorrectly — that when “The Apprentice” aired back-to-back episodes, the second hour was “the number-one show on television,” and was only denied that crown because Nielsen categorized the two hours as one episode. When pressed on that claim, he said that he meant “for that night” on which it aired.

Throughout his campaign for the presidency, Trump’s fixation on ratings asserted itself as he spoke about his role as a draw for CNN and bragged about viewership for debates. It hasn’t abated since he was sworn in as president. On Tuesday, Trump tweeted, “Congratulations to @FoxNews for being number one in inauguration ratings. They were many times higher than FAKE NEWS @CNN – public is smart!” In doing so, he used ratings to undermine the credibility of CNN, a network he loathes, and boost Fox News, whose coverage of him he has endorsed.

That’s not far off from the way that network PR departments use ratings. And like Spicer, those PR departments are known to conflate digital and linear viewership numbers to give an inflated view of a show’s popularity. “One thing about the way that people use research to promote their success is that they’re not necessarily saying that their comparison is meaningful,” Epstein said. “In that sense, there is commonality with the way television promotes itself.”

And ratings spin is not the only TV tactic in the White House toolkit. A release issued Friday featured 16 positive quotes about Trump from media outlets such as the Atlantic, the Chicago Tribune, and Politico — presenting them much in the same way that Hollywood awards-season campaigns feature critics’ blurbs.

“I’m sure our founding fathers never could have dreamed we’d be seeing award campaign-style review quotes used as praise for the President of the United States,” said Richard Licata, a former chief public-relations executive for NBC and Showtime, now head of awards-season strategy agency Licata & Co. “But why wouldn’t we think that something new and audacious like that couldn’t be applied to politics?”

Licata added, “Like some kind of perpetual awards season, President Trump is already running the most aggressive for-your-consideration campaign of all time.”

And that campaign is coming from a president who has complained about elections and Emmy votes being rigged against him.

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