Some wonder whether the fall season will be the last for a show that was a hit when it made its debut in January 2004. Mr. Burnett's contract with NBC for "The Apprentice" expires this fall, and Mr. Trump is committed only through the end of the sixth season, which begins shooting in Los Angeles in June.
"'The Apprentice' is generally on the decline," said John Spiropoulos, VP-group research director at MediaVest. "The move to Monday [from Thursday nights] had a negative effect. [But] that's not the big issue. It's the content of the show. It's matured. People are looking for other ways to be entertained."
"The Apprentice 5" has lost 41% of its 18-to-49-year-old audience compared to the year-earlier period, according to Mr. Spiropoulos' midseason report on the broadcast networks.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Trump, host and executive producer, had a different spin. "The show continues to be a top show," he told Advertising Age. "You can't be No. 1 in that world forever and frankly I think that it continues to be a very successful show. We have more sponsors than we have shows by a factor of five."
Mark Burnett Productions also voiced strong support, with a spokesman calling the series "the gold standard of product integration" and saying it "continues to appeal to the craved-after upscale audience."
The dollars tell a different story. Advertisers spent $87 million on the show for its fourth season, which ran last fall, down from a peak of $190 million for season two, according to TNS Media Intelligence.
Mr. Burnett and NBC are doing what they can to lift ratings for season five. They've introduced an "American Idol"-style online voting element that includes a prize drawing to encourage viewership.
'Lost a lot of buzz'
But they may not be able to slow the inevitable signs of aging. "It has a loyal audience, but it's a bit of been there, done that," said one media buyer who asked not to be named. "It's lost a lot of buzz. It's also an infomercial."
The failed addition of a second "Apprentice" built around Martha Stewart also hurt the franchise, a point Mr. Trump has hammered on. "There have been 15 copies of 'The Apprentice,"' he said. "Everyone has failed immediately and 'The Apprentice' is in season six and we continue to do excellent despite the Martha confusion, despite the Monday-night switch confusion."
The show still works for marketers and can still command $1 million to $2 million from advertisers for integration into contest, a branded-entertainment executive who has worked closely with the program said. "It is still an interesting business proposition. It's different from any other show," the executive said. "For the right client, it's a call to action." But, he added, "Clients [have] noticed the ratings are down."
"We were very cognizant of the ratings situation, but we felt like it was a sure bet," said Debra Mager, senior VP-national advertising at Arby's. In a recent episode, "Apprentice" teams competed to write the best jingle for one of the chain's new products. "We were trying to view it as a larger opportunity. It's not just about ratings, it was motivating for our franchise community."
Ace Hardware is returning for a second turn and General Motors Corp. also reappeared this season.
NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly said: "'The Apprentice' is in a very challenging time slot on Monday nights and it's responded with consistently good results, including the most upscale audience for any unscripted show in prime time. ... It remains a key series for our future."