19 Feb 2006: The Observer - Page 8 - (847 words)
Business & Media: Business: In the end, the biggest asshole always wins
BUSINESS OUGHT to be a natural for reality TV. There's drama, high stakes and issues that affect everyone on the planet - and that's before you have to choose between hating or fancying the participants. The fact that there is currently almost nothing on the box that makes the business world seem either interesting or comprehensible both increases the opportunity and makes it more important to get the formula right.
So it's a pity we're stuck with the travesty of The Apprentice , the second series of which kicks off on Wednesday. A surprise hit for BBC2 last year, the programme, fronted by the irascible Sir Alan Sugar, comes up in its second manifestation with much the same ingredients as before, only more so: the same gabby, over-assertive young men and women in power suits competing to complete a series of business-related tasks, the same catch phrase 'You're fired' greeting one of the 14 candidates at the end of each episode.
After the 12 tasks, in case you missed the first series, the last one standing is taken on as Sugar's apprentice at a salary of pounds 100,000. This time, however, the main programme will be accompanied by a follow-up, perhaps inevitably called You're Fired , an interview with the sacked candidate, while a website will offer programme repeats, clips and videos of auditions.
The problem with The Apprentice is not, in its gruesome way, watchability - there is a certain grim satisfaction in seeing insufferable candidates getting their comeuppance after having tried to rat on fellow team members, and in marvelling at the depths of humiliation they will undergo for the chance of that pounds 100,000.
The trouble is the relentlessly reductive and trivialising view of business that it puts forward. True to form, the first episode shows the 'girls' team tarting themselves up to persuade market traders to give them free fruit and veg etables to sell, and the 'boys' simply descending to the hard sell. Many of the 12 tasks seem to involve buying and/or selling: nothing wrong with that, except that in The Apprentice the qualities favoured seem to be the gift of the gab, smooth patter and manipulation. Success is putting one across on someone else rather than a straight, tough deal.
The usual line of defence to this is, where's your sense of humour? It's only a game. But this is undercut in a number of ways. First, as Sugar himself grimly counters, it's actually not a game, and pounds 100,000 is there to prove it. Second, the spin-off book from the series (subtitled How to Get Hired, Not Fired ) purports to distil the lessons of the experience 'to show you how to become a success in business and test your stamina and leadership potential': in other words, it does have a real-life application. (In fact this is false: while apprenticeship suggests learning, craft and a body of knowledge, the only learning in the programme is about how to avoid responsibility for failure, collect as much credit as possible for success and scheme rivals out.)
Finally, as Lynn Barber put it in a witty interview in this paper, if it's a game, it's a pretty counterproductive one: the world it presents is 'so cut-throat, joyless and frightening' that it's hard to imagine any young person wanting to have a part of it, let alone work for Sugar, if it wasn't for the cash prize.
The point is not that business isn't tough or stressful or competitive of course it is, as anyone knows who has made a pitch to venture capitalists, faced a tough interview panel or been dressed down for failing to meet demanding sales or production targets. But all business, even the most cut-throat, is a mixture of competition and co-operation. This version, focusing relentlessly on individual greed and ambition, has space only for temporary tactical alliances that dissolve in recriminations and accusations when mistakes are made. Winner takes all, the team is destroyed. The Apprentice offers a crude, brainless version of business in which success is down to individual plausibility and pleasing the boss rather than learning and teamwork, as in a real apprenticeship.
If this seems excessively PC, consider a more insidious objection. Because of their real-world effects on actions and decisions, assumptions about business and human nature can easily become self-fulfilling. If you expect people to be opportunistic schemers and treat them accordingly, opportunism and scheming are thereby legitimised and that's what they learn to be. The reverse is also the case: assumptions of trust and co-operation tend to legitimise more of the same. So assumptions matter. The Apprentice is a good example of the self-fulfilling process at work, both within and between the series. Thus, people have learnt that success is about outcompeting the others at scheming and being opportunistic in pursuit of pounds 100,000 The Apprentice provides a course in doing just that - and in the end the biggest asshole wins.
Business doesn't have to be like this, and neither does reality TV. If indeed it's what business is about, then programmes like this bear their responsibility for making it so.
The Observer, 19 February 2006