The Rise of the Business Entertainment Format on British Television

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The Apprentice has as much to do with business as bullfighting has to do with animal husbandry.

Television producer Peter Bazalgette, 2008.

In part what is being argued here is that in an age of international formats, not only do the particularities of national television audiences still matter, but also the institutional histories and memory that shape organizations such as the BBC are important. The social, cultural and political context within which television content gets consumed remains crucial in defining popularity and meaning among the audience. This of course does not mean that significant change is shaping that experience and interaction between consumers, citizens and media.
There is also the key role played by certain individuals in shaping and driving formats. In the US Mark Burnett has been a key instigator of a number of reality television format successes including The Apprentice. While in the UK over the years, first at the BBC and later as an independent producer, Robert Thirkell has been a key innovator in thinking about how television might engage with the world of business and work.
Thirkell would leave the BBC in 2003 to set up as an independent producer and work on programmes such as Jamie’s School Dinners for Channel 4 which mixed aspects of celebrity recognition with campaigning and agenda setting television). Although not about business per se, a raft of programmes could be found in the schedules relating to some aspect of business and entrepreneurial culture, often grouped under the rubric of lifestyle television. At the core of many of these programmes were aspirational notions of walking away from a mundane job, to stories of people who had decided to change their lives through some risk taking decisions.
A more market orientated television industry has seen British public service broadcasters such as the BBC and Channel 4 increasingly embrace – at least rhetorically – the centrality of enterprise and aspiration in British society. However, over forty years on from the launch of The Money Programme the challenge for public service broadcasters such as the BBC is to find ways to engage with the deeper structures and processes that are driving and shaping the impact of business in a globalising economy on society and its citizens. As broadcasting becomes increasingly commercially orientated, concerned with delivering entertainment content to specific audience demographics and stopping advertising revenues leaking to other media such as the internet, there remains a need for PSB television to offer a range of representations about what it is like to live and work in modern Britain. Leaving that task solely to the domain of news and current affairs limits the ability that television can play in any national conversation.
In the midst of the current 2008 global economic downturn, the extent to which the media really address the complex and multi-faceted ways in which people’s lives are shaped and influenced by business issues has become increasingly important. In his overview of the political, economic and cultural changes that have shaped modern Britain, Anthony Sampson argued that despite more media coverage being devoted to the worlds of business and finance, that these areas remained underreported. He suggested:
during the past four decades big corporations, financiers and banks have hugely extended their influence over the lives of ordinary people who have become more dependent on them for shopping, their leisure or their credit. Government itself has co-operated much more closely with the private sector, as the Treasury has delegated more and more projects to commercial consortia. And [ ] lawyers, academics and journalists who have a record of proud independence, have all become more interlocked with the interests of big business (Sampson, 2005: 244).
The related issue is also whether the formatted television mode of address is best suited to re-dress this imbalance. As Stella Bruzzi has argued:
The characteristics that have come to represent the docusoap subgenre of observational documentary are its emphasis on the entertainment as opposed to serious or instructive value of documentary, the importance of personalities who enjoy performing for the camera, soap like fast editing, a prominent, guiding voice-over, a focus on everyday lives rather than underlying social issues (Bruzzi, 2000: 76).
As we enter an era that will see the web and television grow ever more interconnected, there is a need to map out new innovative ways of drawing in an audience through formats that for example may offer them a stake in shaping the narratives and stories being told. Commercial television is more likely to tweak already successful formats and focus on the entertainment angle. Public service broadcasters should be mobilising a range of journalistically driven factual entertainment formats and genres that offer differing representations and insights into the ongoing ways in which business and the world of work are both changing, and in turn being changed by, contemporary society. Before his death in 2008, the original troubleshooter, Sir John Harvey-Jones criticized the style of business management being celebrated on UK television. He insisting the ethos behind his shows was always one of constructive guidance, arguing ‘It is not your job to exploit your position of power. It's easy (to do that). My experience of life is that you get the best out of people by encouraging their self-belief.’ (Birmingham Post, 2/1/08).
In terms of television’s engagement with the world of business indeed one could argue that the picture of a workforce characterised as bored, frustrated, disillusioned and harbouring blighted ambition portrayed in the hit BBC television comedy The Office (2001 -2003) or the BBC docu-soap The Armstrongs (2006) are as least as accurate in articulating the cultural context of the British worker in the 21st century as the reality business entertainment formats which purport to reflect the dynamic business environment of contemporary Britain. Yet given the massive displacement that the current economic crisis is likely to have across all sectors of economic and social life, a substantive revisiting of the world of work and business will be likely to occur. Will these will no doubt focus on the human impact of the financial meltdown, the challenge in the UK will be to develop appropriate television formats that can capture, illuminate and explain this process while also entertaining an increasingly distracted audience.
(1) Alan Yentob was speaking in an interview in the Channel 4 documentary Who Killed the British Sitcom, broadcast on 2 January, 2006.

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