LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - NBC is close to telling Donald Trump “You’re fired,” but the network is holding back just in case they could use him at the last minute.
The future of his NBC series “The Apprentice” was cast into extreme doubt on Monday by the network’s announcement of a 2007-08 programming lineup that made no mention of Trump or the corporate-themed reality show he hosts.
Such an omission, coming at the outset of the networks’ annual “upfront” advertising market, would normally spell doom for a low-rated show like “The Apprentice.” But NBC executives refused to absolutely rule out an 11th-hour reprieve for Trump’s show.
“The Apprentice,” which turned billionaire Trump into a TV star and introduced his catch phrase “You’re fired,” features a group of young, aggressive entrepreneurs in a weekly game of elimination as they vie for a real-life job in Trump’s business empire. But the series has lost nearly two-thirds of its audience since its first and most successful run in the spring of 2004.
Asked whether “Apprentice” was now effectively dead, NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly insisted, “Not yet.”
He said NBC would wait until after the other major networks have unveiled their new programming lineups before rendering a final judgment on the fate of Trump’s show.
“Donald still wants to do the show. (Executive producer) Mark (Burnett) wants to do the show,” Reilly said. “We couldn’t find the right spot for it. So we’re going to regroup after everybody announces their schedule. We’re going to look at everything in context and then make a decision about it.”
There was no immediate comment from Trump.
“The Apprentice” achieved hit status during its original incarnation, averaging 20.7 million viewers with help from a huge ratings “lead-in” following the mega-hit comedy “Friends” on the NBC schedule during that show’s final season.
But the show has suffered a steady ratings decline since then, hitting an audience low of just 7.5 million viewers for the recently concluded sixth edition set in Los Angeles.
Trump and NBC still have other joint interests, however.
The two announced in March a renewed deal to keep annual broadcasts of the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants, which Trump co-owns, on the General Electric Co.-controlled network through 2010.
“We want to stay in business with Donald in whatever format that will take,” Reilly said on Monday. “The guy has a certain magic. We love him.”
Additional reporting by Paul Thomasch from New York