Sunday, February 13, 2005

This week the BBC launches The Apprentice, a UK version of the hit American TV show in which Donald "deals are my art form" Trump selects an employee through weeks of televised business trials. Instead of the flamboyant Trump, the BBC has engaged the straight-talking Sir Alan Sugar. Over the next 12 weeks, 14 aspiring entrepreneurs will have to demonstrate the kind of business skills that will convince the self-made millionaire that he or she is the one to win a year's contract worth £100,000 working for the Amstrad chief executive.
Unlike most reality TV contestants, The Apprentice hopefuls routinely abandon senior positions in business in order to take part. There's hardly a dearth of them, as the US show is already preparing for a fourth series. Its success has given rise to a spate of imitations including Richard Branson's Rebel Billionaire and another investment-based challenge called The Benefactor. In an arena where show-business ambitions once reigned supreme, corporate guile is suddenly something to aspire to.
Back home BBC2 has every reason to be confident about the success of The Apprentice. The show follows on directly from the success of Dragon's Den - a venture capitalist version of Pop Idol - which was claiming a 10 per cent audience share by the end of its run last week. It's a long way from the straightforward documentary style of The Money Programme; indeed, via Troubleshooter, Back to the Floor, Blood on the Carpet and Trouble at the Top, BBC2's ability to find drama in business has captured new viewers who have realised that watching people struggle to succeed in commerce is no less compelling than seeing them strive for fame.
At the launch of The Apprentice, a splendidly off-message Sir Alan (who had described the show's producers as "creative arseholes", and the overall production as "a giant fuck-up" in the previous day's papers) is happy to deny that TV ever taught him anything about business. "There's been things that have inspired me but nothing that's presented itself as a business programme, no," he says.
So how much of what we can expect to see on The Apprentice is business and how much is just entertainment? "It's 80 per cent business and 20 per cent fun," he reckons. "If you saw the American one - which I thought was crap - and then you see with ours that there's less glitz and showbiz here. You can follow what's going on. The American one - the business side - was very hard to follow."
Trump's Lear jet lifestyle may have been replaced by Sir Alan speeding through the Rotherhithe tunnel in a Bentley, but behind the details how much of what actually makes a successful business can really come across on television? "Obviously, it would be very boring trying to film someone when they're thinking. A lot of people's time involves implementing what you've asked them to do. These days that involves sitting in front of a PC, and how much of that can you watch on television?" Instead it is the charismatic attributes of the entrepreneur that the show nurtures. And it is precisely these characteristics that are driving the trend.
Ann Harris, head of UK production for Sony Pictures Television International which developed Dragon's Den, was pleasantly surprised by the willingness of entrepreneurs to get involved. "We only approached people who had made their own money - no employees or people with inherited wealth - and the response was overwhelming," she says. "There were no shrinking violets at all." The entrepreneur's instinct and love of the limelight are serving broadcasters well and this, says Sir Alan, is entirely appropriate. "The UK is poised for more enterprise. Not everyone can be an entrepreneur, but people have a fixation that Shell or BP are the backbone of the country. They're not.
"The actual backbone of the country is Fred with six employees in the garden centre, or in the garage. They're the ones who employ the majority of people in this country. Being employed in the old-fashioned way isn't that available any more. People have got to start thinking about doing things for themselves."
So is it important for business to present itself in a more engaging way? "I think it's absolutely necessary. One of the things that Gordon Brown is striving for is to make the public more aware of the need for enterprise, and shows like this will help. It's very much on the theme of what I've been doing for the past few years - doing lectures and question-and-answer sessions at schools and universities, enterprise promotions and the Prince's Trust."
Getting 14 people to put themselves through one test after another for other people's entertainment is hardly a conventional recruiting method - and the winner has yet to be decided - but the process seems to have won Sir Alan's approval. "It's 100 per cent better for me, absolutely," he says. "I've always said you don't know whether you've got a good employee until they're actually working for you months down the line. So here I've seen them for 12 weeks in action, not just at interview. Any employer would jump at it. It's a great process."


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