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The man known as The Donald headlines the return of Celebrity Apprentice on NBC. (Ali Goldstein/� NBC Universal, Inc.gs)
The man known as The Donald headlines the return of Celebrity Apprentice on NBC. (Ali Goldstein/� NBC Universal, Inc.gs)

Andrew Ryan: Television

The Donald banks on the star factor Add to ...

The greatest trick Donald Trump ever pulled was convincing NBC to transform his reality series The Apprentice into The Celebrity Apprentice (Sunday, NBC at 9 p.m., and Global at 8 p.m.). Say what you will about the man's hair or his business acumen, but The Donald knows when to upgrade a product.

"The regular Apprentice did very well," said a typically cocky Trump in a recent conference call. "Then we switched to Celebrity Apprentice, but we didn't do it for any particular reason. I just thought it would be very interesting."

And smart business, as it turns out. This weekend's return of Celebrity Apprentice marks the third edition of the series, which converted to its current star-driven format following six seasons of the regular Apprentice series. Last year's show earned the show the highest ratings in its six-year run.

The American version of a British TV series, the original Apprentice arrived with advance buzz in early 2004. Executive-produced by reality kingpin Mark Burnett, the show was an ad hoc finishing school for young entrepreneurial types.

In this case, it was survival of the fittest as 18 hopefuls were put through a series of business challenges, with Trump bumping off one contestant each week in the faux boardroom/studio, barking, "You're fired!" with grand flourish. The last one standing received an executive position running one of Trump's companies, with a starting salary of $250,000 (U.S.).

Even with the incessant promotion of the Trump brand - and the shameless product placement - the original Apprentice was unique, and it worked. Viewers had a new reality concept and the show topped U.S. Nielsen ratings in its first season, but like most fads, the public fascination faded. When the sixth season of Apprentice began in 2007, the show had dropped more than two million viewers. Something had to be done.

Clearly, Trump and Burnett had kept tabs on the original British series, which the year before had launched a new edition in which U.K. celebrities took part in the business challenges and donated their winnings to charity. Retitled as Celebrity Apprentice, the new and improved show launched in early 2008.

"Having these celebrities on-board changed the game entirely," said Trump at the time of the relaunch. "The show now had the star factor, which brought in new fans, but it was also incredible to see how good some of these celebrities carried themselves in the business world."

Was the new Apprentice a business school or a freak show? A little of both, really. The celebrities for that first revamped season included aging rocker Gene Simmons, boxer Lennox Lewis and former Olympic gold medalist Nadia Comaneci. When the dust settled, British TV impresario Piers Morgan was the winner.

And for once, reality-TV was a win-win proposition for all parties involved: The revamped Apprentice bounced back with higher ratings and the stars - not all of whom were exactly A-listers - got their names and faces on television.

Likewise for last season, which featured ex-athletes like Scott Hamilton, Dennis Rodman and Herschel Walker vying for boardroom position against a runway model, a Playboy playmate and oddball Canadian comic Tom Green (who was jettisoned, mercifully enough, by week three).

On the new season, contestants run the gamut of celebrity oddness, and include singer Cyndi Lauper, ex-baseball star Darryl Strawberry, pro wrestler Bill Goldberg, Sharon Osbourne and - seriously now - disgraced former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, who was run out of office in early 2009 and currently awaits trial on multiple corruption charges.

"It took a lot of courage for him to even do the show," said a gleeful Trump last week. "Here's a guy doing a major, major television show for two hours prime time and, you know, the government wasn't thrilled with the whole thing."

Also tossed into the new season mix is the comedian Sinbad, Olympic sprinter Michael Johnson, actress Holly Robinson Peete and Bret Michaels, former lead singer of the eighties metal band Poison, who has found renewed fame in recent years as the focus of the VH1 reality series Rock of Love. In the same phone chat, Michaels claimed to be taking the competition very seriously.

"Going in you know it's going to be intense in the boardroom," he said. "You know that he [Trump]takes no crap. You don't want to slip up."

And of course, the stars will collide on Celebrity Apprentice. Ratings spiked in the late stages of last season, around the same time of heated exchanges between contestants Joan Rivers and professional poker player Annie Duke. Among other charges, Rivers likened Duke to Hitler and referred to pro gamblers as "whore pit vipers."

"This one is mean, too," promised Trump. "It's got a lot of meanness in it, but it's also very funny. And more than any other season I'd say that some of the people I thought would be really tough killers weren't, and some people I thought were not tough turned out to be."

And if the viewers don't return in force, watch for Trump to overhaul the Apprentice concept all over again. By now the man who became famous making billions in the real-estate racket is a television veteran, but it turns out some business rules are simply universal.

"Sure, TV's a tough business," said Trump. "It's tough, but it's very simple. In real estate, you have lots of different components - financial, location and so forth. In television, it's very simple: If you get good ratings, they keep you going. If you don't, it's not a pretty picture."

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