The Rise of the Business Entertainment Format on British Television

The Apprentice: Business as Entertainment

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The Apprentice: Business as Entertainment

Intelligent reality is back with a gripping insight into the machinations of the business world.

Roly Keating, Controller of BBC2, Press Release, 7 February, 2006.

This is not a game. There is no phone-in here. There is no 'text-a-number'. There is no panel of judges that's gonna make the decision.

Sir Alan Sugar, The Apprentice BBC Television

The commercial drive for television to create content for evolving formats that connected with a changing society and ostensibly brought something new to the audience has intensified in the last number of years. As these increasingly international formats merged with more traditional genres such as the gameshow it would be the business arena that would offer the possibility of re-imaging the world of commerce and the entrepreneur. It was estimated in 2007 that in the 13 most important television markets that entertainment acquisition and production was worth £1.87billion (Altmeppen et al, 2007: 94).

What was significant about the US Apprentice was that the programme itself became an exemplar of the extent that television formats were being both shaped by, and embedded in the wider commercial broadcasting environment. As the New York based company Hitwise (, which analyse commercial internet traffic, providing marketing intelligence to a range of industries, suggests:

With an increasing number of consumers skipping commercials due to the popularity of TiVo and other digital video recorders, the reality-television revolution has provided marketers with a critical new-generation of product placement. (, posted 25 April, 2005)
Marketing analyst Rebecca Lieb is executive editor of the ClickZ Network ( She notes how the The Apprentice offered a unique opportunity for explicit product placement television, allied with a multi-platform format that drove television viewers to commercial internet sites. For the public service BBC version of the programme, however such an overtly commercial structure would need to modified.
For the BBC, with its public service remit this format allowed it to make claims about its evolving public service remit in an increasingly competitive multi-platform digital age. It also reflected the wider cultural shift taking place across its journalism and its attitude to business and enterprise discussed at the beginning of this chapter (Boyle, 2008). Writing in The Times about The Apprentice, Tim Teeman (2006) argued that:

As a reality show that majors on business rather than bed-hopping, it has a figleaf of Reithian propriety about it. A colleague’s children watch it and apparently learn something about buying and selling. A friend who works in Whitehall reports that it is discussed at departmental meetings (The Times, 10, May, 2006)..

What was beyond doubt was that it offered a very different image of the world of business than had been explored decades earlier in Troubleshooter. For example, the first episode of series two (broadcast February 2006 on BBC 2) intercuts between the fourteen contestants all arriving by rail, road and tube to the metropolitan centre, framed against a backdrop of communications and data babble, iconic London cityscapes and the incessant movement of people. It’s brash, exciting and monied and represents what business supposedly means in 21st century Britain; it’s about getting ahead, competing and equates the only success that matters as the bottom line. It is the 1980s cinematic image of Thatcher’s Britain, given a stylistic makeover for television and suggesting that making money and the centrality of business and entrepreneurship in British society is by the 2000s viewed as the norm. The underlying message of The Apprentice is that an ideological battle (that making money is good) has been won.

There is also a debate about the educational merit to these programmes. In the US where The Apprentice with Donald Trump was first broadcast in 2004 on NBC and was securing an audience of 19m viewers numerous college and university business courses were using it as ‘career advice tool’ (Kinnick and Parton, 2005: 430). Indeed both the show’s creator Mark Burnett and its US star Donald Trump, both felt that the educational dimension as part of its audience appeal (Burnett, 2006: 215). Elsewhere academics were divided over the relative educational merits of the show, some thinking it offered insight into business leadership and management issues (Simon, 2004), others that is presented a partial, distorted view of the world of business and the skills needed to succeed (Cadden, 2004). In the UK business broadcaster and journalist Jeff Randall suggests that:

Does [The Apprentice] really tell people about business? Well not in a news way. Its been a success because Alan Sugar is such a ghastly character in such a attractive way and the structure of the show is episodic, building to a climax and you get to know the characters in the way like a soap opera. The Apprentice works because he is Alan Sugar (Interview with author, 11 January, 2007).
Interestingly the third BBC series of The Apprentice (2007) involved recruiting Michele Kurland as Executive Producer. Kurland, whose background at the BBC had been in the Business Unit came with a strong business journalism background. She was recruited by the show’s makers Thames Talkback to strengthen the business dimension of the programme which it was felt by some was becoming diluted with too much focus on the human interest dimension of the characters. However as Kinnick and Parton argue with regard to the US version of the show:
The legacy of this television show for educators is that it is driving home the need for effective communication skills in vivid and memorable ways that business schools have failed to provide. If audience members get the message, whether the show is realistic is probably beside the point (Kinnick and Parton, 2005: 448).
The same argument may also applicable to the BBC version despite criticism from organizations such as the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) that such shows are unrealistic (Budd, 2007).

The Apprentice uses the full range of BBC platforms from television (including a spin off show) across to a dedicated site on the internet (which includes extensive video clips of both past and forthcoming episodes). This is an example of what the BBC calls ‘360 degree programming’ which means that programme content should be available across media platforms from television to mobile phones in a coherent manner (The Apprentice BBC website received 4 million requests for content downloads between February and May 2006). Thus for the BBC the ‘business entertainment’ format has been of significant importance in both raising its profile and presenting an organisation innovating in terms of new formats.

In one of the quirks of what Raymond Williams (1974) famously called television’s flow, the second series of The Apprentice on BBC2 was followed by a stylistically different docu-soap called The Armstrongs (2006). In this we followed the husband and wife team of John and Ann Armstrong as they ran U-Fit ‘the third largest double glazing firm in Coventry’. Visually influenced by the BBC comedy The Office (2001 - 2003) and underscored by a laconic Bill Nighy voiceover, the series allowed the viewer into the esoteric, chaotic, idiosyncratic and comedic world of business according to the Armstrongs. For example, the episode in which they go France in order to expand their business has a number of set piece comedy moments as do those involving Zimbabwean motivational coach Basil Mienie’s attempts to increase productivity among the lacklustre workforce.

Here we had juxtaposed two differing visions of doing business in 21st century Britain, viewed through differing television formats that shape the material, define the narratives and set the programme structure to suit a particular genre and the audience it is aimed at. In fact the Armstrongs had first appeared in a one off BBC2 documentary in 2003, and their business been considered as a possible case study for an episode of the Gerry Robinson BBC series (2003 – present) I’ll Show Them Who’s Boss but it was felt they were not suitable

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