Why TV Needs Trump

Billionaire's Polarizing Personality Poised to Boost Ratings

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Credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Whatever your feelings are on Donald Trump as a presidential candidate, there's no denying he makes for good TV.

Despite his polarizing viewpoints, blunt assessment on the state of America and crass comments regarding women -- or maybe because of it -- TV networks (and advertisers) are eager for Mr. Trump to remain in the race for as long as possible.

If Fox News' massive ratings from the first Republican primary debate are any indication, Mr. Trump could do what few things outside of sports and zombies have been able to accomplish -- revitalize TV.

And it's not just cable news and evening newscasts that are poised to benefit; Mr. Trump is perfect fodder for the late-night TV circuit and will surely be the butt of jokes on comedy shows like "Saturday Night Live."

"I think TV nets are eating it up while it lasts, for sure," said David Campanelli, senior VP-director of national broadcast, Horizon Media.

Mr. Trump is no stranger to portraying the quintessential reality TV villain; it's a role he played for 14 seasons on NBC's "Apprentice" and "Celebrity Apprentice."

The real estate mogul is bringing this same bombastic personality to the election, creating the perfect ammunition for late-night hosts. Comedian Stephen Colbert has plenty of Trump jokes up his sleeve and has said he is eager to get started as host of CBS's "The Late Show," where he will assume the anchor desk on Sept. 8.

"I'm not going to name any names, but let's just say I want to do jokes on Donald Trump so badly and I have no venue, so right now I'm just dry-Trumping," Mr. Colbert said during the Television Critics Association semi-annual press tour, according to reports.

And Mr. Trump could buoy "Saturday Night Live" beyond the massive ratings it saw during the 2008 election, when its skits were dominated by Sarah Palin spoofs.

Tina Fey's impersonations of the Republican vice presidential hopeful boosted ratings and became viral video gold. And Ms. Palin's appearance on the sketch comedy show in October 2008 was watched by nearly 15 million people and garnered a 5.5 rating among the 18-to-49 demo, making it the highest rated episode in 14 years.

It couldn't have come at a better time for "SNL" following a lackluster 2007-2008 season where ratings declined and "the show was teetering on becoming stale," said Billie Gold, VP-research and programming, Carat. Ultimately, Ms. Palin and all the political satire she brought to the presidential cycle propelled "SNL" ratings 30% for the season vs. the prior year.

Flash forward to the 2012 election, and without major candidate cameos or buzzy impersonations, "SNL" couldn't recreate its 2008 windfall.

"Palin and the presidential race that year helped renew a fading 'SNL' and brought it back to life, becoming a must-see event in late-night that year," Ms. Gold said. "Trump has done that and more for ratings for the 2016 presidential debate. He is a galvanizing character and people either love him or hate him but everyone knows him."

"If 'SNL' was running originals right now, they'd be killing it," said Neil Vendetti, exec VP-national video activation, Zenith. "And I would bet that they are going to make a push to bring Trump on as host, which would be an absolute ratings bonanza."

While NBC ended its relationship with Mr. Trump in June following derogatory statements regarding immigrants, NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt said during the TCA tour that Mr. Trump isn't exactly banned from the network, potentially leaving it open for him to appear on "SNL."

Fox News set a record earlier in the month, with 24 million people tuning in to the first Republican primary debate of the 2016 election cycle, making it the most-watched cable telecast of all-time excluding sports programming. And perhaps even more impressive, the debate drew 6.7 million viewers in the all-important 18-to-49 demographic. This is more than double the 3.2 million people in total that watched the first GOP debate of the 2012 campaign.

And less than a week after the debate, an exclusive interview with Mr. Trump propelled "Hannity" to a four-month high.

CNN will air the next Republican debate on Sept. 16 and demand for commercial time in the prime-time brawl has been escalating.

"The interest around the election and debate has been strong for us regardless of Trump," said Katrina Cukaj, exec VP-ad sales, CNN. "But having him in the race has taken it to the next level."

Ms. Cukaj noted that while Mr. Trump surely has played a part in fueling interest, there's been an appetite for election coverage beyond the billionaire. She points to the sheer number of Republican candidates as another enticing element to the primary.

While such polarizing, controversial personalities can often be frightening for advertisers, media buyers said advertisers aren't shying from Mr. Trump.

"Big ratings are tough to come by these days, and unless Trump goes off the deep end and says something much more offensive than his recent positions [and] comments, I think the majority of advertisers won't have an issue being in the upcoming debates," Mr. Vendetti said.

"People watched the debate because you never know what is going to come out of his mouth, and that makes for great political theater and, of course, great social conversation," Ms. Gold said. "If there is a debate between Trump and [Hillary] Clinton the numbers would be enormous."

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