When Mike Fleiss, the creator of “The Bachelor” and “Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?” helped pioneer reality television in the early 2000s, he quickly realized that for any show to work, the audience needed to feel invested. “Whenever you’re developing one of these shows, you have to find stakes — true love or a million dollars,” Mr. Fleiss said.
These days, Mr. Fleiss does what American TV viewers are doing in record numbers — he sits glued to cable news, watching a panel of experts discuss the latest developments in the sprawling, intricate, unpredictable 24/7 show that is Donald Trump’s presidency. “This is the future of the world and the safety of mankind and the health of the planet,” Mr. Fleiss told me. He paused. “I should’ve thought of that one.”
Mr. Fleiss and other TV producers have watched — equal parts entranced and horrified — as Mr. Trump has taken the gimmicks of reality TV that he picked up on “The Apprentice” and applied them to daily governance. Flip comparisons of Mr. Trump’s White House and his years on “The Apprentice” abound, but behind the “You’re fired!” jokes is a serious case study in mass viewing habits and a president who has made up for his lack of experience in governing with an uncanny grasp of must-see TV.
Mr. Fleiss used to joke that at the end of every episode of “The Bachelor,” the host should tease the Champagne-fueled finale as “The most shocking rose ceremony ever!” On September 25, there was Mr. Trump at the United Nations General Assembly, making a roomful of staid diplomats chuckle with the line “In less than two years, my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country.” (Another favorite: “The likes of which this country may never have seen before!”)
Mr. Trump concludes each episode with a cliffhanger. On a recent afternoon, Mr. Trump used his go-to “We’ll see what happens” 11 times, according to a Politico tally.
At a time when the big-tent TV show seems all but dead and niche shows proliferate, Mr. Trump has created an unscripted drama that has unified living rooms everywhere. Whether you’re rooting for the antihero or cheering for his demise, chances are Trump TV has you under steady — some would say unhealthy — hypnosis.
Now, with more than half the country ready to hurl the remote, and the midterm elections presenting the first real opportunity to rewrite the script, the question remains: Why can’t we stop watching?
Even in the so-called golden age of TV, Mr. Trump hasn’t just dominated conversation; he’s made all other entertainment from football games to awards shows pale in comparison. “The Russia probe, Kavanaugh, Avenatti, Rosenstein, Cohen, Flynn, Papadopoulos — we’re a wildly creative community, but this is peak TV,” said Warren Littlefield, who oversaw NBC Entertainment in the era of “Friends” and “The West Wing.” (He says “The Apprentice,” a ratings juggernaut, killed quality scripted TV in 2004, when it got the coveted 9 p.m. slot on Thursdays, a move made by his successor, Jeff Zucker, now president of CNN.)
Some TV executives say the only way for the Trump show to get canceled is for ratings to fall off — forcing the president to fade into obscurity or an awkward fox trot in a “Dancing With the Stars” spray tan. But TV history shows that the most successful series — “American Idol,” “Lost,” “The West Wing” and, yes, “The Apprentice” — don’t see sharp declines in viewership or talk of cancellation until around Season 6.
By that logic, Mr. Trump would win re-election in 2020 unless, as many liberal viewers are probably hoping, impeachment and scandal end his presidency prematurely. (In what would no doubt be “The most dramatic finale of a presidency ever!”)
There are no signs of viewer fatigue. Since 2014, prime-time ratings have more than doubled to 1.05 million at CNN and nearly tripled to 1.6 million at MSNBC. Fox News has an average of 2.4 million prime-time viewers, up from 1.7 million four years ago, according to Nielsen, and MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show” has topped cable ratings with as many as 3.5 million viewers on major news nights.
“This is a fire that people are being drawn to because it’s not something we understand,” said Neal Baer, show runner of the ABC drama “Designated Survivor,” about a cabinet secretary who becomes president after an attack destroys the Capitol.
Nell Scovell, a veteran comedy writer and author of “Just the Funny Parts: … And a Few Hard Truths About Sneaking Into the Hollywood Boys’ Club,” has another theory. She remembers a cab ride in Boston before the 2016 election. The driver told her he would be voting for Mr. Trump. Why? she asked. “He said, ‘Because he makes me laugh,’ ” Ms. Scovell told me. “There is entertainment value in the chaos.”
Of course, unlike anything else on TV, the story lines coming out of Washington could determine the future of abortion law, whether immigrant families can reunite and the health of the global economy. Tuning out is a luxury only the most privileged viewers can afford. And yet, it goes beyond being an informed citizen when you find yourself on hour six of watching a panel of experts debate Bob Woodward’s use of “deep background” sourcing for his book “Fear,” Paul Manafort’s $15,000 ostrich-leather bomber jacket (“a garment thick with hubris,” The Washington Post said) and the implications of Stormy Daniels’s lurid descriptions of Mr. Trump’s, um, anatomy. (I, for one, will never look at Super Mario the same way again.)
“Part of what he’s doing that makes it feel like a reality show is that he is feeding you something every night,” said Brent Montgomery, chief executive of Wheelhouse Entertainment and the creator of “Pawn Stars,” about the Trump show’s rotating cast and daily plot twists (picking a fight with the National Football League, praising Kim Jong-un). “You can’t afford to miss one episode or you’re left behind.”
When I reached Mr. Fleiss, it was a sunny 27 degrees outside his home on the north shore of Kauai, but he was holed up inside watching MSNBC while recording CNN. He couldn’t peel himself away, not with Brett Kavanaugh and the future of the Supreme Court hanging in the balance.
“I remember when we were doing all those crazy shows back in the day and people said, ‘This is the beginning of the end of Western civilization,’ ” Mr. Fleiss told me. “I thought it was sort of a joke, but it turns out they were right.”
Reality TV teaches us the most popular series last at least six seasons.