It was inevitable that Donald Trump would come up at the 2016 Emmys. You just knew that host Jimmy Kimmel would have to make some joke about the GOP nominee in his monologue and that at least a few winners would use their speeches to criticize the controversial businessman. But who knew TV producer Mark Burnett would get the blame for Trump's entire candidacy?
Kimmel put Burnett in the crosshairs Sunday when joking that, since Burnett more or less oversaw Trump's rise to fame on NBC's reality TV series "The Apprentice," that he is responsible for Trump's presidential bid. And he may have a point.
"Many have asked, who is to blame for Donald Trump? And I’ll tell you who. He’s sitting right there,” said Kimmel, pointing to Burnett. "That guy. Mark Burnett, the man who brought us 'Celebrity Apprentice.' Thanks to Mark Burnett, we don’t have to watch reality shows because we’re living in one. If Donald Trump gets elected, and he builds that wall, the first person we’re throwing over is Mark Burnett."
Burnett, who currently oversees "The Voice," the ABC singing competition that returns Monday with Season 11, was the creator of "Celebrity Apprentice," the show that made Trump a TV star. While Trump had an infamous reputation before the show as a playboy and hot shot real estate mogul, "The Apprentice" made him famous in the mainstream.
Kimmel was not the only one to pin Trump's rise on reality TV. Actresses Mandy Moore and America Ferrera also blamed the genre for Trump during the 2016 Emmys.
"Whether physical competition or a talent show, a reality series can lead to fortune and fame," Moore said.
"And maybe even the White House," added Ferrera, a Hillary Clinton supporter. "And that’s not even a joke, that’s just what’s happening."
Pundits have often credited Trump's branding instincts with his success, but nothing branded Trump quite as well as "The Apprentice." From the show's debut in 2004 until 2015, "The Apprentice" framed Trump as a tough, but fair, business leader who built an iconic company and was happy to give a Regular Joe a chance — or, in some seasons, put beloved celebrity contestants in their place. Whether that depiction is accurate is a matter of opinion, but most argue that Trump would not have been able to marshal the support he did early in the Republican primaries without his reality show fame.
More than just the creator of "The Apprentice," Burnett personally oversaw reality TV's takeover of American pop culture. Burnett was the creator of "Survivor," the CBS reality survival competition that is still going strong after 16 years. Debuting in 2000, "Survivor" turned reality TV into a phenomenon, spawning dozens of imitators and legitimizing a genre that now includes the "Real Housewives" franchise and the latest Kardashian TV special.
If Trump needed the cultural conditions brought about by reality TV — an addiction to scandal and controversy — in order to succeed, then he could indeed thank Burnett.
How does Burnett feel about all this?
"How much free media can any one person get?" asked the producer in a press conference after the Emmys, implying that just by bringing up Trump's name, Kimmel and others helped the GOP nominee's cause. As for the impact of reality TV, Burnett added, "I think it’s an example really about how everything is changing whether it’s big business or politics."