What to make of the 'kinder, gentler' Donald Trump

What to make of the 'kinder, gentler' Donald Trump
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Donald TrumpDonald TrumpBiden says Roe v. Wade under attack like 'never before' On student loans, Biden doesn't have an answer yet Grill company apologizes after sending meatloaf recipe on same day of rock star's death MORE’s agent — the guy who’s clearly auditioning his client for a big network talk show gig post-election — definitely got his message across before the final presidential debate on Thursday: Give the people your softer side.

Trump did, kind of. But chances are it won’t work.

Mainstream audiences — like the viewers watching those debates — want talk show stars who are easy-going and, most of all, authentic. But authentic is very hard to fake. Audiences have this strong ability to sense when TV personalities are not portraying their real selves — and they don’t like it. They wind up feeling as if they’ve been lied to.


The majority of network daytime talk show viewers are women 25-to-54 years old; you could call them the average suburban voter — a big prize in any general election. Studio research shows they overwhelmingly want to watch personalities who are “comfortable and relaxed” and who are “open to a range of opinions.” That wasn’t the Donald Trump they saw in the first debate, nor in his NBC town hall. 

But trying to change Trump overnight is a significant gamble.

In my years as a television executive overseeing several talk shows, the question I got asked most often about various hosts was: “What are they really like?” Viewers wanted to know if Judge Judy, Rachael Ray and Dr. Phil are honestly the same people they saw on their home screens every day. (Yes, they are.) That consistency — on-screen and in real life — meant a lot to the audience. It told them they were watching the genuine article, not some artifice constructed by consultants and focus groups.

Often in my career, I’d encounter in our office fiery talk radio hosts, former politicians, or hard-nosed journalists who wanted to front a typical mainstream talk show. They would pledge that, underneath their harsh exteriors, was someone just like the folks at home: a caring parent, concerned spouse and clever bargain-hunter. But these people had spent years communicating a very different persona to the public — suddenly asking the audience to believe something totally at odds with that was like telling them the person you thought you knew was fake.

That’s not a path to success. A good recent example is Megyn Kelly. The former Fox News anchor had developed a well-earned reputation as a tough interviewer, fierce and uncompromising. Her prime-time hour on the news channel was anything but warm and fuzzy — just the way her fans liked it.

But then she moved to NBC, where producers worked hard to turn her into a classic daytime host. Her morning program was filled with segments on fashion, relationships, and shopping. Viewers didn’t know what to make of it. This was not the Megyn Kelly they’d seen for years on Fox, moderating highly-rated presidential primary debates. It left them wondering which Kelly was real, a feeling compounded when she suddenly pivoted back to harder, controversial topics that were her trademark. The show was cancelled after a little more than one year on the air.

Trump’s final debate performance felt like that — a shift too fast to be believed. It’s nearly impossible for viewers to forget the Trump they saw in the first debate just three weeks ago. Even if they did, his Sunday “60 Minutes” interview — released early by the White House — will remind them of his petulant presidential style, as opposed to the more composed Trump seen Thursday night.

The president spent several years — from birtherism to lock-her-up and beyond — creating a special personality aimed at a particular audience. Those viewers really liked what they saw — but his numbers never grew beyond that. Trying to show a different side to the incumbent — and selling it to a wider audience as the “real” Trump — is as difficult to pull off in politics as it is on television.

Which, for this president, is often the same thing.

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.