Enterprise or Entertainment

In 2004, when The Apprentice was first commissioned, Sir Alan Sugar (as he then was titled) declared that the show sat “perfectly with my long held belief in the importance of promoting enterprise”.  Co-producer Peter Moore promised “a series that tests entrepreneurial skills”.  Within the BBC’s public service remit, the show was evidently designed to “promote business and enterprise”.

This may have been the theory, but in looking through comments in the media on the previous series it is hard to find much mention of “enterprise”.  “Jedi Jim” is disliked because he is manipulative.  ‘Nitwit Natasha’ irritated viewers by saying “Yeah” too often.  Helen has generally impressed, although in a “shiny-haired teacher’s pet” way.  Entrepreneurial talent seems distinctly less important than personality.

It is the nature of reality television that the producers are provided with hundreds of hours of footage, which they cut down to an hour’s worth of television.  To try and make 60 minutes of videotape attractive to viewers the producers need to shape it into some sort of narrative, which necessitates having characters that viewers can either love or hate.

This focus on personality has led to the show’s alumni tending more towards celebrity status than entrepreneurialism.  Kate Walsh hosts a television show for Channel 5; Alex Wotherspoon has been working as a model; Raef Bjayou has scaled the heights of Celebrity Coach Trip.  Obviously these are balanced out by those who have pursued successful business careers, either with Lord Sugar or on their own.  Nonetheless the evidence points towards the show being as much a media opportunity as an entrepreneurial contest.

All this isn’t to say that the show has lost the element of business at its heart.  It’s easy to criticise the individual performance of the candidates, but even in doing so the public are being made to consider the fundamentals of running a business: sales, profit margins and planning.  It is facetious to suggest that watching The Apprentice will inspire hordes of unemployed people to launch into business, but even by planting that seed it is having an effect.

Considering this, the decision to change the prize this year from a job with Lord Sugar to an investment in the candidate’s own company is confusing.  The interviews in the final of the series resembled an episode of Dragon’s Den, with candidates pitching their ideas and being grilled on them.  However, the fact that the previous eleven episodes had been a game show meant that only those who had succeeded before would have a chance to pitch their ideas.  Business was once again subsumed under personality, leading to the jarring conclusion of Tom being pronounced as the show’s winner despite a dismal lack of success across the show as a whole.

Overall though, maybe we can question whether the celebrity focus of the show must necessarily be a bad thing.  It might be better for young people to aspire to be businessmen and women rather than pop stars, even if it is for reasons beyond simply entrepreneurial talent.  Encouraging business acumen amongst viewers must remain a purpose of the show, and celebrity might just be a potent vehicle for delivering that.


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