The defining moment in the birth of the distinctive British version of the modern day business entertainment format was the BAFTA award winning the Troubleshooter series that aired on the BBC in the early 1990s and ran for two series and had two specials, the last in 2000. The BBC producer Robert Thirkell was the one of the key figures who through his work initially with the BBC and its Business Unit and more recently as an independent producer helped define and shape factual television’s engagement with the world of business and work. The impact of the Troubleshooter series has been discussed elsewhere (Boyle, 2008). However its format, which had industrialist Sir John Harvey-Jones visiting ailing businesses offering advice has been re-formatted on a number of occasions over the last two decades. The most recent popular re-incarnation (with more swearing for example!) of this format can be seen in a programme such as Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares (Channel 4, 2004 – present), in which chief and restaurant owner Gordon Ramsay attempts to help failing restaurant businesses.
When Sir John Harvey-Jones died in 2008, the BBC broadcast an episode from the original 1990 series. It was introduced by Evan Davies, the presenter of Dragons’ Den and a former BBC Economics editor. It was striking to draw comparisons between the original forerunner of the business entertainment format and the present version. Looking at the Troubleshooter series now one is struck by a number of factors. Firstly how fixated it was with the manufacturing economy (little examined today); how dated the factories and sites of British manufacturing look almost twenty years on (an indicator of their impending decline), and how much the programme, while dominated by the larger than life Harvey-Jones really is focused on offering a serious business analysis of the problems and challenges being faced by the various companies he visits. Of course the engagement for the viewer is partly in the centrality of personalities and the role of communication (or lack of it) in contributing to the problems in the respective businesses. The programme mobilizes a fly-on-the-wall documentary form and link it with a recognizable format (business guru visits failing business to see if they can help turn it around) that helps manage audience expectation.
While the documentary form had been used to look at the world of work and business, the arrival of synergized format the docu-soap in the mid 1990s allowed this area to be re-visited by factual television, with the emphasis on character and entertainment. As Hill (2005: 78) has argued, ‘The twin issues of performance and authenticity are significant to our understanding of popular factual television’.
Alan Yentob, Controller of BBC1 during the 1990s recalls commissioning a number of relatively cheap docu-soaps for the channel to air during a quiet summer lull in the schedules in the mid 1990s and being taken aback by the popularity and ratings achieved by programmes such as Driving School and Airport (1).
This decade become one characterized by both public and private sector businesses seemingly keen raise their media profile and viewing through television exposure as both potentially positive for the business and in the case of the Royal Opera House for example, as a means of countering the negative publicity they had received in the print media. The House (BBC2, 1996) gave a behind the scenes insight into the business of running a major arts institution. Through clever editing, selection and the rejection of anything that was not seen as interesting, the series represented the Royal Opera House as a shambolic operation. Even with his vast television documentary experience, Sir Jeremy Isaacs the director of the Royal Opera House, failed to understand until too late that the series the BBC wanted to make about the organization was not a ‘fly-on-the-wall documentary, but rather a docu-soap. Isaacs (2000: 287) notes how ‘Everything these films sought to capture was exceptional; there was nothing of routine’ and its highly selective representations damaged the ROH’s reputation.
Others programmes worked better for the businesses involved. Perhaps the most significant and long running of these docu-soaps was first broadcast by ITV in 1999. Airline focused on easyJet one of the pioneers of the emerging ‘no frills’ low cost airlines that restructured the aviation industry in the UK during the 1990s. There had been previous examples of airlines being involved with television documentary makers. Travel writer Simon Calder notes how:
ITV dusted off the name of a documentary series made in the 70s about the daily life of British Airways, Airline. There are plenty of casualties of these ‘warts and all’ programmes in the travel industry. The country’s biggest charter airline Britannia (now Thomsonfly), did not emerge well from its flirtation with the cameras, while depictions of the excesses of some of Unijet’s overseas reps reinforced the image of debauchery in Mediterranean resorts (Calder, 2008: 131).
Yet for Stelios Haji-loannou, the founder of easyJet, allowing the cameras access to the business was part of a strategy to raise the profile of the company and emphasise its honesty as an employer. For Stelios the programme helped make easyJet a household name and was a risk worth taking and an example of a business preparing to be open and honest with television documentary makers. Not all excursions into the genre of the docu-soap were successful for the businesses involved. Matthews notes how environmental health officers at London’s Haringey Council claimed that the BBC series Life of Grime (2001), which focused on their Environmental Services division, ‘wrecked recruitment’ for three years (Matthews, 2006: 40).
By the start of the new century the key ingredient that had been added to the docu-soap mix was that of jeopardy and risk and the arrival of ‘reality television’. As Crisell argues:
Reality TV is a prime example of the way that in which television endlessly combines and recombines older genres, for its antecedents are many, some of them time-worn. [ ] In recent times, television viewers have enjoyed the milder pleasure of watching people being humiliated when competing on game shows, but reality TV incorporates certain elements, and offers certain gratifications, that are recognisable from other generic forebears (Crisell, 2006: 89).
In the US an exemplar of this was a format devised by a former British paratrooper called Mark Burnett that would soon by exported across the globe. Burnett had developed a highly successful career in developing reality television formats in the US. His idea to develop what was to become The Apprentice, rested with securing the participation of Donald Trump and building an extended job interview around a series of weekly business tasks. The tasks would be undertaken by teams, with the losing team having one of their members fired. Burnett notes how originally he wanted to pitch the two teams as one of college graduates against non-college graduates, but difficulty in the casting process, meant that for series one, they reverted to men v women (Burnett, 2006: 226).