On January 29 2022, the Facebook page “Millennials for Guillotines” shared a screenshot of the following tweet, which described an NBC executive who was purportedly responsible for singlehandedly changing the course of history:
Conceptually, the tweet’s content was similar to another meme describing the creation of Facebook ushering in a series of events that culminated with a coup attempt on January 6 2021:
That tweet contained quite a bit of context in addition to its claim.
Greenlighting is broadly defined as authoritative permission to proceed with a project, typically in an entertainment sense.
When an executive gives a prospective project the go-ahead, it’s often described as having been “greenlit” or “greenlighted.”
Joe Rogan, Fear Factor, and What’s Going on with Spotify in January 2022
In January 2022, a former host of reality television show Fear Factor turned podcast host, Joe Rogan, was enmeshed in an ongoing controversy that has sparked a Spotify boycott over the disinformation that his show disseminates.
In May 2020, Spotify inked an exclusive deal to become the sole distributor of Rogan’s influential podcast. The BBC, citing the Wall Street Journal, estimated the deal to be worth around $100 million dollars. In other words, Spotify put a large amount of money into Rogan’s show and its continued ability to draw listeners to the platform.
While many news organizations covered aspects of the January 2022 controversy involving Rogan and Spotify, the only real timeline of events we were able to track down appeared on Wikipedia’s “Criticism of Spotify” entry.
Under “Misinformation,” a section explained that a growing number of artists and listeners objected to disinformation being promoted on Spotify via Rogan’s popular show:
In January 2022, 270 scientists, physicians, professors, doctors, and healthcare workers wrote an open letter to Spotify expressing concern over “false and societally harmful assertions” on the The Joe Rogan Experience and asked Spotify to “establish a clear and public policy to moderate misinformation on its platform.” The 270 signatories took issue with Joe Rogan “broadcasting misinformation, particularly regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.” and more specifically “a highly controversial episode featuring guest Dr. Robert Malone (#1757). The episode has been criticized for promoting baseless conspiracy theories”, including “an unfounded theory that societal leaders have ‘hypnotized’ the public.” The signatories further assert that “Dr. Malone is one of two recent JRE guests who has compared pandemic policies to the Holocaust. These actions are not only objectionable and offensive, but also medically and culturally dangerous.” The signatories also note that Malone was suspended from Twitter “for spreading misinformation about COVID-19”.
On 25 January 2022, Neil Young demanded that his music be removed from Spotify, over the Joe Rogan COVID-19 misinformation. The following day, while siding with Rogan, Spotify announced that it will remove all of Young’s music at his request. While Spotify regretted their decision, they hoped that Spotify would “welcome him back soon.” On 28 January, Joni Mitchell announced that she will remove her music from Spotify in support of Young. On 29 January, James Blunt tweeted that he would release his music on Spotify unless they remove The Joe Rogan Experience podcast off the platform while Nils Lofgren announced he will pull his music off from Spotify in support of Young. Podcaster and author Brené Brown also announced that she will not release any Spotify-exclusive podcasts until further notice. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, who signed a multi-year partnership with Spotify, stated that since April 2021 they had also begun “expressing concerns” over COVID-19 misinformation on the platform. On 30 January, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek announced that Spotify will place advisory warnings on podcasts that discusses COVID-19 on the platform which will redirect to an information hub on COVID-19.
On January 31 2022, NBC News reported new developments in the ongoing controversy:
Joe Rogan defended himself Sunday [January 30 2022] but vowed to “try harder” to offer more balance on his podcast in his first public response to the growing protest facing Spotify over Covid-19 misinformation.
Rogan’s comments came after the streaming service announced it would add a content advisory to any podcast episode that discusses the coronavirus. The move came after several musicians, led by Neil Young, said they were pulling their music from the platform over its failure to take action against the spread of falsehoods about vaccines.
Its star podcaster — who signed a $100 million deal giving the streaming service exclusive rights to his show in 2020 — has been at the center of the growing backlash.
Rogan responded in a 10-minute video posted to Instagram. He said he would “do my best to make sure I’ve researched these topics” and “try harder to get people with differing opinions” on his show, which reaches an estimated 11 million listeners per episode.
“I’m not trying to promote misinformation. I’m not trying to be controversial,” he said. “I’ve never tried to do anything with this podcast other than just talk to people and have interesting conversations.”
Prior to launching The Joe Rogan Experience, the actor and comedian was perhaps best known for hosting Fear Factor, a reality television show aired by NBC in which contestants willingly participated in acts that were disgusting, frightening, or otherwise humiliating for cash prizes.
NBC and the Presidency of Donald Trump
Before Donald Trump entered American politics, he had a highly public profile. He was first known as an ambitious and colorful real estate developer, who then embedded himself for years into popular media, from books to films to broadcast television as the host of NBC’s The Apprentice.
A 2018 New Yorker piece, “How Mark Burnett Resurrected Donald Trump as an Icon of American Success,” featured a strong subheading. It stated in part that The Apprentice “mythologized Trump — then a floundering D-lister — as the ultimate titan, paving his way to the Presidency.”
That lengthy profile began by detailing how in the early 2000s, the fortunes of Donald Trump and British producer Mark Burnett, then most-known for the reality show Survivor, began to wane. It explained how those circumstances then led to the development of Trump vehicle The Apprentice:
A few years [after the year 2000], Burnett was in Brazil, filming “Survivor: The Amazon.” His second marriage was falling apart, and he was staying in a corporate apartment with a girlfriend. One day, they were watching TV and happened across a BBC documentary series called “Trouble at the Top,” about the corporate rat race. The girlfriend found the show boring and suggested changing the station, but Burnett was transfixed. He called his business partner in L.A. and said, “I’ve got a new idea.” Burnett would not discuss the concept over the phone—one of his rules for success was to always pitch in person—but he was certain that the premise had the contours of a hit: “Survivor” in the city. Contestants competing for a corporate job. The urban jungle!
He needed someone to play the role of heavyweight tycoon. Burnett, who tends to narrate stories from his own life in the bravura language of a Hollywood pitch, once said of the show, “It’s got to have a hook to it, right? They’ve got to be working for someone big and special and important. Cut to: I’ve rented this skating rink.”
In 2002, Burnett rented Wollman Rink, in Central Park, for a live broadcast of the Season 4 finale of “Survivor.” The property was controlled by Donald Trump, who had obtained the lease to operate the rink in 1986, and had plastered his name on it. Before the segment started, Burnett addressed fifteen hundred spectators who had been corralled for the occasion, and noticed Trump sitting with Melania Knauss, then his girlfriend, in the front row. Burnett prides himself on his ability to “read the room”: to size up the personalities in his audience, suss out what they want, and then give it to them.
In that retrospective, the story said of Donald Trump:
Trump had been a celebrity since the eighties, his persona shaped by the best-selling book “The Art of the Deal.” But his business had foundered, and by 2003 he had become a garish figure of local interest—a punch line on Page Six. “The Apprentice” mythologized him anew, and on a much bigger scale, turning him into an icon of American success. Jay Bienstock, a longtime collaborator of Burnett’s, and the showrunner on “The Apprentice,” told me, “Mark always likes to compare his shows to great films or novels. All of Mark’s shows feel bigger than life, and this is by design.”
“The Apprentice” portrayed Trump not as a skeezy hustler who huddles with local mobsters but as a plutocrat with impeccable business instincts and unparalleled wealth—a titan who always seemed to be climbing out of helicopters or into limousines. “Most of us knew he was a fake,” [Jonathon] Braun told me. “He had just gone through I don’t know how many bankruptcies. But we made him out to be the most important person in the world. It was like making the court jester the king.” Bill Pruitt, another producer, recalled, “We walked through the offices and saw chipped furniture. We saw a crumbling empire at every turn. Our job was to make it seem otherwise.”
Trump maximized his profits from the start. When producers were searching for office space in which to stage the show, he vetoed every suggestion, then mentioned that he had an empty floor available in Trump Tower, which he could lease at a reasonable price. (After becoming President, he offered a similar arrangement to the Secret Service.) When the production staff tried to furnish the space, they found that local venders, stiffed by Trump in the past, refused to do business with them.
In January 2022, memories of the violent and deadly conclusion to Trump’s single-term presidency was well known, but at the time the profile was published, that had yet to happen. In any event, Trump’s time in the White House was notoriously tumultuous — and popular opinion viewed his time on The Apprentice as a necessary stepping stone to a more national audience, thereby paving his way to the United States presidency and all that came after.
‘The Same Executive at NBC Greenlit Fear Factor and The Apprentice, Setting an Unbelievable Sequence of Events in Motion’
In January 2022, the tweet quoted above spread due in part to many readers understanding the humor and accuracy of the statement — both Trump and Rogan had their once-foundering career trajectories altered via successful television programs on NBC — both of which, it must be pointed out, involved publicly putting contestants through forms of ritual humiliation for cash prizes.
Determining whether the “same executive at NBC greenlit Fear Factor and The Apprentice” proved to be somewhat straightforward. In September 2020, the New York Times published a piece claiming that that NBC’s Jeff Zucker had “helped create” Donald Trump.
In a subsequent April 2021 New York Times profile, “Jeff Zucker, CNN’s Longtime Leader, Says He Expects to Leave at Year’s End,” reported:
In a three-decade career, [Jeff] Zucker has helped shape the evolution of the news and entertainment industries — and he has excelled at mixing the two. In 1991, at age 26, he was named the executive producer of NBC’s highly profitable morning franchise, the “Today” show, and he moved swiftly into the executive ranks to lead the network’s entertainment division.
He put his mark on some of the most extreme and absurd productions in the early years of reality television, programs like “Fear Factor,” in which contestants jumped off buildings, ate bugs and navigated a pit of rodents.
He also gave the green light to a show called “The Apprentice,” imagined as a version of “Survivor” in the urban jungle and starring a brassy real estate developer named Donald J. Trump. The opening-credits sequence burnished the Trump myth, presenting the show’s star in moody, slow-motion shots to the beat of “For the Love of Money” by the O’Jays.
Zucker’s Wikipedia entry noted:
In 2000, he was named NBC Entertainment’s president. A 2004 BusinessWeek Profile stated that “During that time he oversaw NBC’s entire entertainment schedule. He kept the network ahead of the pack by airing the gross out show Fear Factor, negotiating for the cast of the hit series Friends to take the series up to a tenth season, and signing Donald Trump for the reality show The Apprentice. He is credited with the idea to extend Friends episodes by 10 minutes and convinced the cast to extend their contracts by two years. The Friends era was one of the most profitable ever for NBC. The Zucker era produced a spike in operating earnings for NBC, from $532 million the year he took over to $870 million in 2003.”
It was indeed accurate to say the “same executive” from NBC paved the way for Fear Factor and The Apprentice.
As of January 2022, that same executive now heads CNN.
In late January 2022, a popular tweet claimed that “the same executive at NBC greenlit Fear Factor and The Apprentice, setting an unbelievable sequence of events in motion.” At the time the tweet was popular, former Fear Factor host Joe Rogan was in the news due to a very high-profile controversy involving his deal with streaming service Spotify. Trump’s rise and the role of The Apprentice in it came well before the chaotic end of his presidency, and indeed was a key factor in his rise to power. Jeff Zucker was the executive who greenlit both shows.