TTP: The Role of Ratings

There is a particular aspect of Donald Trump’s approach to the presidency that may have been overlooked.

Television ratings.

Before 2016, Trump was steeped in the world of television ratings nearly as much as he was in real estate and commercial development. Television ratings form a key part of his way of separating success from failure, of what to do from what not to do.


Look at the dynamics of television ratings. The goal is to get people to watch. Why do they watch? There’s the easy and obvious answer: they like what they see. We assume that “liking what they see” means they enjoy the content, the characters, the setting, and the rest. It’s pleasing and fun. That’s what “like” means in a conventional outlook.

It has an unconventional meaning, too. An audience of television viewers may also like a program because they despise aspects of it. They “root against” selected characters and situations. They like to dislike, to ridicule the villain and the vile. They celebrate comeuppance, the delicious rewards of seeing the noxious and obnoxious having gotten what was coming to them. In television, provoking or outraging viewers lifts ratings.

In television, there’s no such thing as a bad reason for good ratings. The point—the only point—is to get people to watch. There is no other filter. Not decorum, not tradition, not the uplifting or some innately held vision of moderation. No one presses the channel’s numbers on a remote because they want to see moderation.

“The Apprentice” was a vital piece of Donald Trump’s success. The television show raised his profile, boosted his image, and enriched associated elements of his wider business holdings and dealings. Beyond “The Apprentice” we saw Donald Trump’s foray into professional wrestling, professional football, and professional beauty-contesting. All of them aimed for success in a particular way—in the attraction of an audience that translated into ratings. The spectacular, or its more reachable subset, the spectacle, was the mode of translation.

Take some of the words I’ve just employed: ratings, spectacle, audience. Now, bring up in your mind some of the regular sights and sounds of the Trump Presidency: arguments with reporters, brash and outlandish statements, open mockery and ridicule, and the rock-concert, stadium parking-lot feel of the rallies. The fit between the words and the impressions is natural.

For Donald Trump to be more presidential, as they say, he would have to shed his experience with television ratings. Put another way, it won’t ever happen. The imprint of television ratings is too deep, too much of his leadership identity to exchange it for something new and, in his mind, unnatural.

The leadership point here is that, as with POTUS 45, your background has also given you a deeply ingrained habit of defining success and failure. A particular period of time—complete with a set of experiences—has produced your way of acting as a leader. To switch it out for another technique or strategy just wouldn’t seem comfortable to you.

There are times, though, when a different way is required. Evidence mounts up to show that your preferred method is counter-productive or, worse, destructive. You need to be able to step back and accept the verdict of reality. You need to know when to turn off the television in your head.

Thanks for reading. All the best, Dan

(p.s. If you can, think about attending my upcoming Leadership Now Workshop, “Post-2018, POTUS 45, and the New Relevance of Andrew Jackson”, Wednesday, December 19, 3:30p-5:30p, Sullivan’s Steakhouse, Keystone Crossing, Indianapolis. $75 per person. Limited availability)