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EntertainmentColumnistsVerne Gay

Why Donald Trump hosting 'SNL' is risky for NBC and the candidate

Cecily Strong and Donald Trump, promoting the Nov.

Cecily Strong and Donald Trump, promoting the Nov. 7 "SNL" hosting gig. Photo Credit: AP / Dana Edelson

The last time Donald Trump hosted "Saturday Night Live" was on a cool April night in 2004. He wore a mauve shirt, lavender tie, Armani suit and otherwise looked and sounded like one of the biggest stars on all of television.

He was.

"It's great to be here at 'Saturday Night Live,' the one-man firing squad and host of the highflying "Apprentice" deadpanned during the cold open. "But I'll be completely honest: It's even better for 'Saturday Night Live.' "

When Trump steps out on that hallowed stage for the first time in 11 years this Saturday, the relentless passage of time will have yielded some obvious changes, though hardly subtle ones. This is Donald Trump, after all: As he might indelicately put it, subtlety is for losers.

That tie-shirt combo? Gone. Expect red tie, white shirt, and you can guess the color of the suit. The circumstances have changed, too. You already know what those are.

Otherwise, that hair, that voice, those teeth, that swagger, along with all of the other indelible exclamation points that go into the indelible package now known as Donald Trump, candidate for president of the United States, will be there in Studio 8H, just as we remembered him all those years ago.

Great for the candidate.

Even better for "SNL."

But as Trump leans hard into his triumphant return, it's also worth noting that this triumph may not come without a price, for either network or candidate.

On Wednesday, a rally was staged outside 30 Rock demanding that Trump be dumped, in light of the comments made about Mexican illegal immigrants after announcing his candidacy in June. Alex Nogales, president of Hispanic National Media Coalition, which organized the rally, said NBC and "SNL's" Lorne Michaels have refused to discuss the request, sent via letter. That's "very lamentable," he said, "because in the long term, NBC is going to lose the Latino population as an audience and the goodwill they gained when [NBC] did away with Trump," by severing ties with "The Apprentice," and selling its stake in the Trump-controlled Miss USA organization.

(NBC Wednesday declined to comment on both the letter and rally.)

Another potential problem: Trump's appearance triggers the so-called "equal opportunities" provision in the 1934 Communications Act. Simply put, NBC stations may have to give other GOP candidates equal time in the states where they've registered (most likely just Iowa and New Hampshire at this point).

A few NBC stations also had to offer Democratic candidates time after Hillary Clinton's "SNL" appearance last month. The big difference: She was on the air for only three minutes and had two other rivals. Trump could be on for over 30 minutes -- and has more than 10 rivals.

"We don't know how much time Trump will be on screen [and] you actually sit there with a stopwatch to count the minutes and seconds" to determine equal time provisions, says William E. Lee, professor at the University of Georgia's Grady College of Journalism and Mass communications, and an expert in media law.

But, he adds: "NBC's calculations may be that they're going to get the best ratings number of the entire season and think [the risk] is worth it."

For Trump, the risks are less apparent, perhaps no less real. The potential benefit: Comically consecrated by "SNL," he becomes the de facto front-runner irrespective of competing poll results, while his outsize personality becomes fodder for memorable skits, a cold open and whatever else "SNL" cooks up.

That risk is the obvious one: The appearance further inflates his image as showman and showboater, and someone who's "great" for numbers, but also someone who's perhaps insubstantial or frivolous, not constructed of sturdy presidential timber.

"SNL" can giveth. "SNL" also can taketh away. Saturday night, we all learn which will be which, for candidate and network.

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