Why the TV reality of Trump’s coronavirus speech was scary instead of soothing

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President Trump’s coronavirus speech from the Oval Office late last week unnerved many, including a stock market that plunged to its worst day since 1987. But that performance — shaky, rushed, unsure — is no surprise, given how Donald Trump learned television. 

Remember: Trump is a reality star.

The man who viewers saw live from the White House was severely at odds with the assured, often sarcastic persona strutting in front of thousands at arena rallies around the country. In that latter setting, he owns the stage, controls the crowd, usually speaking off-the-cuff for close to an hour. What happened in the Oval Office?

That cognitive dissonance is easier to follow when you understand how reality shows like “The Apprentice” are produced. These programs are called “unscripted series” for a reason: There are no formal screenwriters involved. Instead, producers give participants a broad outline of what should happen in each scene and then step out of the away.

This is also called “fly on the wall” television. The idea is to make the camera as unobtrusive as possible, so that it doesn’t interfere with the “reality” playing out in a particular location. Contestants in a scene often go on much longer than required — again, there is no script — and producers typically overshoot by a wide margin. Each episode often ends up with hundreds of hours of extra material.

The real work — and the creativity — of these shows comes in the editing process. That’s where 90 percent of what happened ends up on the cutting room floor, as editors shape a shapeless scene. Meandering exchanges between contestants, long-winded speeches by key characters that go nowhere — these are all edited down to make everyone on camera seem sharper and more articulate than they really are. 

This is true even in the highly choreographed scenes Trump dominated on “The Apprentice” — especially the boardroom finale of each episode where someone was fired. Trump and his producers knew what they needed from those moments, but the star was given leeway to go with his gut, to be “real.” It would all be saved in editing.

In reality television, you don’t memorize long speeches written by someone else; you usually don’t worry about the clock. And you never read off a teleprompter.

Speaking from a prompter and looking natural is one of the hardest tasks in TV. The words fly by, but you can’t look like you’re reading. If you make a mistake on live TV, there are no do-overs; the gaffe won’t be edited out later so that you look smoother and smarter.

And, most importantly, you have to relate directly to the camera, something that rarely happens with the unobtrusive reality-TV shooting style. Television hosts and news anchors I’ve worked with learned to think of the camera as if it were one of their best friends; they turned to the lens as if they were telling that friend a story about what happened today, or something exciting that’s about to happen. On the other side of the cathode rays, viewers at home relate to the anchor as if, yes, that person is talking to them.

Trump’s reality-TV training handed him none of those skills. So, in his coronavirus speech, he seemed distant, cut off from the camera and the viewer. It’s clear he plays best to a crowd, whether in an arena or at the State of the Union address, not to a lens. The cheers and applause — human responses of any kind, really — are the signals he needs in order to know he’s reaching people. But the Oval Office is more like an empty news studio. When the blinking red light goes on, it is just you and the person at home.

If you’re not used to that, it can be very scary. But “very scary” was not what the public expected, or needed, last week. It needed reassurance — instead, it got a lesson in how a life in reality television can sometimes make someone seem anything but real.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.

Tags Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Reality television Teleprompter Television The Apprentice

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