A History of Donald Trump’s Obsession With TV Ratings

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US-POLITICS-TRUMP-AUTO INDUSTRY
Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

In what may or may not have been a joke, President Trump Monday claimed his White House announced the pardon of former Maricopa County, Arizona, sheriff Joe Arpaio right as Hurricane Harvey was hitting Texas because he “assumed the ratings would be far higher than they were normally.” Trump was trying to deflect a question about whether the timing was an attempt to bury the news, but it only generated another round of stories about the president’s lack of decorum and crass manner of handling sensitive topics. His comments also once again underlined something that’s been obvious for a while: Donald Trump is obsessed with Nielsen numbers. As Vulture chronicled earlier this year, POTUS’s ratings-nerd tendencies go back years— and they haven’t gone away now that he’s got an entire country to run. In light of Trump’s latest bit of amateur Nielsen punditry, we’re republishing our January story — and updating it to include his latest ratings riffs.

Former Apprentice host turned president of the United States Donald J. Trump has been in the White House for a week now, and to the delight of his die-hard fan base, he shows no sign of letting his new gig change him. He’s still playing all the hits: “Build the Wall,” “The Vote Is Rigged,” “Mine Is Bigger Than Yours.” Best of all — at least for those of us who closely follow the TV industry — President Trump maintained his obsession with television ratings. Early Sunday morning, POTUS woke up and shared the good news about the big audience for his Friday swearing-in: “Wow, television ratings just out,” Trump tweeted, clearly thrilled to be talking about his beloved Nielsens. Two days later, he gave a shout-out to his friends at Fox News (sending congrats “for being number one in inauguration ratings”) for beating his mortal enemy (“FAKE NEWS @CNN”). The tweets sent a clear signal Trump has no plans to let his new job get in the way of what, over the years, has proven to be one of his favorite hobbies: amateur ratings analyst. Indeed, long before he started tweeting about public opinion polls, inaugural crowd sizes or “stolen” vote tallies, Trump established himself as one of Twitter’s most prolific interpreters of Nielsen data. And while he obviously has had plenty to say about his own ratings, a deep dive into Trump’s Twitter timeline shows he’s just as obsessed with OPP (other people’s performance … in the Nielsens), both positive and negative. POTUS, it turns out, is a genuine Nielsen nerd.

Not surprisingly, it seems as if the first time Trump talked about ratings — for himself or anyone else— it was to tout the numbers for Celebrity Apprentice. Back in 2010, he was actually telling the truth when he said the show was doing well.

Eventually, though, Trump’s Apprentice ratings tweets turned into propaganda. (Shocker!) In May 2012, as his show notched its lowest-rated finale to date, he created his own Nielsen report:

A year later, in 2013, Tump couldn’t stop tweeting about how well his show was doing.

The only problem? Celebrity Apprentice was having an awful year, with numbers down over the previous season and the season finale plunging nearly 25 percent versus a year earlier. No wonder then, midway through that bumpy 2013 season, Trump suddenly turned nostalgic … for his old ratings.

Beyond creating his own alternative ratings facts, Trump’s use of Twitter to launch personal attacks on people he doesn’t like or whom he feels have done him wrong are the stuff of legend. And when a fellow TV personality is involved, his favorite bludgeon has, of course, been ratings. If you’re a hater or a loser, you also have really bad Nielsen numbers. While Rosie O’Donnell has the “honor” of being Trump’s most famous verbal bullying victim — at least before he announced his run for the White House —  Twitter wasn’t a thing when their spat began in 2006, and their battle wasn’t all that active when POTUS first began tweeting in 2009. Instead, based on our search, it appears another O’Donnell — MSNBC’s Lawrence — may have been the first TV type to get bashed for allegedly being a Nielsen laggard. The attacks continued for years.

Not that it took long for Trump to play the ratings card with Rosie O’Donnell, too:

He even found a way to attack both O’Donnells with a very weird (even for Trump) video rant in which he bashed both personalities for their awful numbers, and speculated it was because he, Trump, didn’t approve of them. “When I don’t like somebody, their shows do really badly,” the future president argued. “Maybe it’s subconscious. Maybe it’s will over matter.”

Long after the infamous White House Correspondents Dinner in which President Obama and Seth Meyers teamed up to ding the Donald, Trump was still nursing a grudge and used Twitter to attack Meyers — not on his actual ratings, but on his Nielsen potential.

And while Trump’s Obama attacks over the years were mostly aimed at his character or policies, the man who would eventually replace Obama in the White House paid attention to his nemesis’ Nielsen numbers, too. And yes, ironically, Trump once belittled Obama for his inauguration ratings. Really.

(Fact check: The 2013 inauguration ratings weren’t a record low — at all. Obama drew nearly 5 million more viewers than George W. Bush’s 2005 sophomore swearing-in.)

Somewhat underappreciated is Trump’s role as a critic of professional sports. In 2014, he was very upset with the quality of play in the NFL, and made sure to blame it on the league’s supposedly bad numbers. (Fact check: The NFL did great in 2014.) You don’t think the fact Trump was upset he lost his bid to buy the Buffalo Bills had anything to do with his tweets, do you?

Trump also used Nielsen to hype golf courses he loves, and to denigrate those he doesn’t.

While Trump is best known for pointing out his own good ratings and belittling his enemies for their bad ratings, there’s a lesser-known side of the tweeter-in-chief. Every once in a while, he’s been known to randomly praise someone for being a Nielsen magnet. Like that time he talked up NBC’s The Blacklist as a “smash”…

… or sent love to Tiger Woods and ABC’s Diane Sawyer out of the blue:

He’s been known to both bash and praise within one ratings tweet, like this one from 2012:

But those are exceptions. Trump mainly uses ratings as a way to attack his enemies. So. Many. Enemies. Like TV shows:

… and networks:

… and the Oscars:

… and, of course, people who host TV shows:

But Trump isn’t always a ratings scold. You can get him sing your Nielsen praises. All it takes is to invite him on as a guest, or just be nice to him. You’ll have your best ratings ever.

Finally, Trump loves ratings tweets so much, he’s been known over the years to quote other Twitter users willing to sing the praises of his Nielsen might. One such incident took place in 2014, when a fan urged Trump to run for president because his doing so would produce … yup, good ratings.

Turns out @petewaite976 was quite the prophet. Trump’s first debate appearance in August 2015 smashed all previous records. At the time, many experts scoffed at the idea that Nielsen strength would necessarily result in electoral triumph. On the one hand, that turned out to be true: Despite helping ratings surge repeatedly during the 2016 campaign, Trump ultimately drew just 46 percent of the popular vote, barely edging out infamous electoral loser — and, probably, ratings dud — Michael Dukakis’ 1988 tally. But as the New York Times’ James Poniewozik noted recently, U.S. elections, like the TV business, are all about winning the key demographics — in Trump’s case, the Electoral College. Our president’s obsession with ratings has ultimately served him well. If there’s a golden rule for Trump, it’s probably summed up best by his response to a WWE fan wondering why Trump was appearing at an event. Replied our future leader: “Ratings, asshole.”

Being in the White House seems to have changed Trump very little, if at all, as his “joke” about hurricane ratings demonstrated. But while POTUS Trump clearly remains interested in Nielsen measurement, he actually seems to have slowed down the pace of his public pronouncements regarding ratings since settling into his new job. Since we first chronicled the Ratings-Analyst-in-Chief’s measurement obsession on January 27, Trump has cut back on his Nielsen-related tweets. Per a Vulture search of his Twitter feed, Trump has mentioned ratings a mere five times since our last story.

The president, demonstrating unusual self-restraint, didn’t tweet about ratings at all during February. He did, however, use the occasion of the National Prayer Breakfast — really — to discuss Nielsen numbers, specifically the performance of the Trump-produced NBC reality show The Celebrity Apprentice with Arnold Schwarzenegger as hot. “It’s been a total disaster,” the leader of the free world told an audience of religious figures. “And I want to just pray for Arnold for those ratings, okay?”

On March 4, Trump was back bashing Arnold — and his ratings — on Twitter.

Trump’s analysis of The Celebrity Apprentice situation wasn’t entirely off-base: The show’s numbers did decline with Schwarzenegger as host. But as we noted in January, they had been fading even when Trump was still in the boardroom, a fact POTUS unsurprisingly left out of his Twitter diss of his successor.

Later in March, Ratings Trump returned to take a shot at one his favorite villains, CNN. With polls showing Trump’s approval ratings plummeting, the president tried to discredit the network by claiming its polls were “way off” during the 2016 election. He then gave a random shout-out to one of CNN’s main competitors.

Trump took another Nielsen sabbatical in April, but he kicked off May with a free plug for his favorite TV show, Fox and Friends, because why not?

About a week later, Trump did an interview with Fox News Channel’s Jeanine Pirro in which he both threatened to cancel his administration’s on-camera press briefings and bragged about how those briefings “ratings are so high. I don’t know what these networks would do, they’re going to start to cry. They get great ratings from me, and yet they don’t treat us fairly.”

June saw Trump once again trashing CNN via a tweet which combined two of his favorite things: media-industry gossip and ratings analysis.

For the record, there’s no evidence to suggest CNN is — or has been — considering any major management shuffles. But Trump’s most recent ratings tweet, late last month, once again tried to paint CNN as a network in decline, while also hitting a print publication known for its investigative reporting into the Trump campaign’s Russian connections (and other possible misdeeds).

Hurricane ratings comments aside, Trump hasn’t tweeted about ratings since that last missive on July 24. But Nielsen numbers are never far from our president’s mind. Believe me, he’ll be serving up more ratings commentary soon. Imagine the fun he’d have bragging about the no-doubt record numbers the networks would generate with coverage of congressional impeachment proceedings.

Donald Trump’s TV Ratings Obsession: A History