With Conflict And Drama, Trump Hooks You Like A Reality TV Show

Feb 3, 2017
Originally published on May 8, 2017 4:24 am

If one thing became clear over the course of the 2016 presidential campaign, it's that Donald Trump knows how to keep media attention on himself. If cable television coverage started to stray, a new controversial tweet or remark would draw it back to Trump.

An estimate from the media analysis company mediaQuant said Trump had received almost $2 billion in free media coverage by early 2016; by the end of the campaign the estimate was almost $5 billion.

And one reason Trump received so much coverage was that people were watching. The first debate between Trump and Clinton was the most-watched debate ever.

People tuned in because you never knew what to expect from Trump — what twists and turns lay ahead in the story of the campaign.

It was almost like a reality television show — which isn't surprising, as Trump was an executive producer and star of the reality show The Apprentice and hosted The Celebrity Apprentice. In fact, it wouldn't be surprising if he picked up some tricks from TV that he applied to the 2016 campaign.

"It was the best reality TV show," says Tom Forman. He would know, because he makes reality TV. Forman is the CEO of the production company Critical Content. He brought reality TV hits like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and the controversial show Kid Nation to millions of viewers.

"Who knew how it was going to end?" he says. "Constant elimination, a big field that got narrowed over the course of the campaign. And just when you thought it couldn't get any weirder and crazier, somehow it seems to. Like, those were teases I couldn't have written if I tried."

Forman talked with NPR's David Greene about how he thinks Trump is approaching public relations during his new presidency — in a way you might expect to see on reality TV.


Interview Highlights

On how Trump communicates

He uses tools we use every day to tell and shape a story. [Like] conflict and drama — that's still the engine that powers all reality television. I guess I would note that, candidly, reality television does not typically address giant, macro-issues particularly well, right? It's not a genre of big ideas. And that's OK.

What it does do really well is interpersonal relationships — is taking big themes like love and jealousy and revenge, and boiling them down to conversations between two people.

I think Trump clearly knows that those small interactions that speak to larger themes are what connects with us as humans. And I think it's probably something that we should know too as we consume his tweets, as we watch White House press conferences or prayer breakfasts. That this is a guy who understands how to make us feel a certain way.

He's the anti-wonk. It's not operating at 30,000 feet. But neither would one of my sometimes-dumb reality shows. This is a visceral, red-meat story that we can sort of dig our teeth into. So I'm not surprised people do.

On the media's role in making the campaign feel like reality TV

The media loves a good story, right? I think he knows the degree to which we like a simple story told well, and is doing his best to give us one.

I think Obama, smart though he was, an unbelievably talented speaker, was operating at that 30,000-foot level. He wanted to talk about policy. Obama would talk about the relationship between the federal government and state-funded education. And the federal government's role in helping people at a state level go out and get a college education. And that's unbelievably important, but it's dry.

Trump tweets about withdrawing federal funding, and suddenly you're impassioned and you have a point of view — and he's hooked you. What he's actually talking about is nuts, and certainly less important than the actual policy discussion. But he's made it understandable, he's made it personal, he's added a conflict-driven narrative. And look, those are the techniques we use every day, because they work.

On the reality-TV approach to storytelling

You don't want to get bogged down in an argument over facts when you make a reality television show. You don't want to convey a ton of information, because people get bored or lost or change the channel — and that's certainly not our business.

You want to be directionally correct. You want to amplify what your viewers already believe to be true — what they know in their bones. And that means keeping the conversation at a pretty red-meat level. It's stuff I can grasp quickly, talk about at the dinner table. I think Trump just sort of gets that.

On whether people care about getting facts and information

Some of the disconnect between the news media and their viewers, readers, consumers today, is that they don't hold Trump to the same standards that reporters do. ...

I find it terribly frustrating. I was a journalist in a previous life, so I know exactly what it must be like to stand in a briefing room and wonder if what you're being told is true.

I guess on some platonic level, I too have an objection, but who cares. He's doing it and he's going to continue doing it. But I do think it's sort of incumbent upon us as voters to arm ourselves and to deconstruct the narrative coming from the White House or anywhere. You have to be an informed consumer of messages. But, like, that's on us. He's going to tell a story. He's really good at it and you're not going to stop him. You've just got to learn to read it right.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The 2016 presidential election was so much more than just a political race for Tom Forman.

TOM FORMAN: It was the best reality TV show. Who knew how it was going to end? Constant elimination - a big field that got narrowed over the course of the campaign. And just when you thought it couldn't get any weirder and crazier, somehow, it seems to. Like, those were teases I couldn't have written if I tried.

GREENE: Forman is the CEO of the production company Critical Content. He produces reality TV. Forman has brought us hits like "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" and also the controversial show "Kid Nation." And as we look back on a week featuring the season finale of Supreme Court Nominee Survivor...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: So was that a surprise? Was it?

GREENE: ...And also The National Prayer Breakfast: Apprentice Edition...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: I want to just pray for Arnold, if we can, for those ratings, OK?

GREENE: ...We wanted to ask Forman whether some of this political theater is coming straight out of the reality-TV playbook.

FORMAN: He uses tools we use every day to tell and shape a story.

GREENE: Yeah? Like what?

FORMAN: Conflict and drama, right?

GREENE: OK.

FORMAN: That is still the engine that powers all reality television. I guess I would note that, candidly, reality television does not typically address giant, macro issues particularly well, right? It's not a genre of big ideas. And that's OK.

GREENE: You're not going to take on the relationship with Iran in a reality, taped TV show.

FORMAN: Right. What it does do really well is interpersonal relationships - is taking big themes like love and jealousy and revenge and boiling them down to conversations between two people.

GREENE: I'm just thinking about Mitt Romney and the whole dinner that he and Trump had and the glass of wine...

FORMAN: Right. Well, look. So...

GREENE: ...And the date to see if he was going to be secretary of state.

FORMAN: That's exactly right. And I think Trump clearly knows that those small interactions that speak to larger themes are what connects with us as humans. And I think it's probably something that we should know, too, as we consume his tweets, as we watch White House press conferences or prayer breakfasts - you know, that this is a guy who understands how to make us feel a certain way.

He's the anti-wonk. You know, it's not operating at 30,000 feet. But neither would one of my sometimes-dumb reality shows. You know, this is a visceral, red-meat story that we can sort of dig our teeth into. So I'm not surprised people do.

GREENE: What role is the media playing in making this all feel like reality TV?

FORMAN: Look, the media loves a good story, right? I think he knows the degree to which we like a simple story told well and is doing his best to give us one. I mean, look. I think Obama, smart though he was - an unbelievably talented speaker - you know, was operating at that 30,000-foot level. He wanted to talk about policy. Obama would talk about the relationship between the federal government and state-funded education, you know, and the federal government's role in helping people at a state level go out and get a college education. And that's unbelievably important. But it's dry.

GREENE: You're suggesting people fall asleep at that moment in the speech.

FORMAN: Yeah. Trump tweets about withdrawing federal funding, you know, in the wake of a protest. And, suddenly, you're impassioned, and you have a point of view. And he's hooked you. What he's actually talking about is nuts and certainly less important than the actual policy discussion. But he's made it understandable. He's made it personal. He's added a conflict-driven narrative. And, look, those are the techniques we use every day because they work.

GREENE: Under the model you're talking about, it seems like if he says that - says something that's kind of outrageous - it grabs attention and might stir a debate about an issue that is important and would be important to presidents like Obama - but that he wouldn't have been able to stir things that well.

FORMAN: I think that's right. But we think about that a lot in our business. You don't want to get bogged down in an argument over facts when you make a reality television show. You don't want to convey a ton of information because people get bored or lost or change the channel. And that's certainly not our business.

You want to be directionally correct. You want to amplify what your viewers already believe to be true, what they know in their bones. And that means keeping the conversation at a pretty red-meat level. It's stuff I can grasp quickly, talk about at the dinner table. I think Trump just sort of gets that.

GREENE: What do you say to someone who says that they like directionally correct, maybe, in reality TV, but they want more commitment to facts from the president of the United States?

FORMAN: You know, look. My gut is you're hearing that from journalists. I don't know that you're hearing that from real people out in the United States, who, I think, on some level, don't really care. You know - and that some of the disconnect between the news media and their viewers, readers, consumers today is that they don't hold Trump to the same standards that reporters do.

GREENE: Are you OK as an American and as a voter with that standard used in reality TV being applied to the White House?

FORMAN: Look, I find it terribly frustrating. I was a journalist in a previous life. So I know exactly what it must be like to stand in a briefing room and wonder if what you're being told is true. I guess, on some platonic level, I, too, have an objection. But who cares? You know, he's doing it, and he's going to continue doing it.

But I do think it's sort of incumbent upon us as voters to arm ourselves and to deconstruct the narrative coming from the White House or anywhere. You know, you have to be an informed consumer of messages. But, like, that's on us. He's going to tell a story. He's really good at it. And you're not going to stop him. You've just got to learn to read it right.

GREENE: Tom Forman, thanks so much for coming by. We appreciate it.

FORMAN: Sure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIEUX COMPOSITION, "RUST")

GREENE: Tom Forman, reality TV producer - he's the CEO of Critical Content, a production company in LA. And he came by to visit our studios here at NPR West.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, since they talked about the National Prayer Breakfast, let's add a bit of news here. David, you'll be interested in this. Besides using the event to joke about Arnold Schwarzenegger, the president used the traditionally nonpartisan moment to make a political pledge. He said he would totally destroy the Johnson Amendment, which is a law that, since the 1950s, has prevented churches and other tax-exempt religious groups from spending money on politics.

He did pledge to do this during his campaign. It's a move that is supported by many of his backers, including Jerry Falwell Jr., although critics have said it blurs the line between church and state. So there's another conflict set up for the weeks, months and years ahead.

GREENE: Indeed. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.