Although some individuals should not be in business, never mind on TV, this week, 18 contestants will be wading waist deep and occasionally drowning in their own bullshit as The Apprentice kicks off series 12.
To me, this type of television is as painful as a teacher catching a pupil smoking and forcing him or her to smoke an entire packet of cigarettes.
The last time I bothered watching more than one episode – which was 2014 – Alan Sugar invested in the SEO industry with winning candidate Mark Wright and his Climb Online venture.
Apparently, this turned out to be a spammy sales partnership and attracted much criticism from white-hat SEO practitioners within the industry.
After learning sour puss moneybags was coming back to the box, I bunged out a tweet and a few people weighed in, including TV critic Kevin O’Sullivan:
— Kevin O’Sullivan (@TVKev) November 12, 2015
And why is it even still called The Apprentice? Why not The Partnership or The Deal on account of the format having changed?
If you didn’t know, the prized apprenticeship with the Amstrad founder was revoked after a previous winner tried to sue Sugar for unfair dismissal.
Stella English, winner of Series 6, brought court proceedings to the table because Shugs did not renew the employment contract for a second year. She claimed the so-called “apprenticeship” was just a job as a “glorified PA.”
A Spoonful of Sugar
The BBC must think they’re onto something with their panto-in-Grimsby approach to free enterprise. It’s as though shiny packaging has been used for a typically dull subject – business – which is like advertising sweets to children on the low shelves of the supermarket.
In Defence of “Clowns”
The Q&A video below is from November 2015 and worth a watch. It proves Alan Sugar is a shrewd, capable, hard working man and I admire him for it.
An audience member asks, “Do you think shows like The Apprentice have genuinely a positive impact on entrepreneurship?”
“I think I know where you’re coming from”, says Sugar.
“The thing is, you like the programme, and I guess you like it because you think it’s entertaining and you like looking at someone you might think is a right numpty, and that’s why you like it. What you don’t realise, in the back of your mind, is that you are picking up some of the business message that is there.”
I’ve scrubbed to the part of the video where he defends the “entertainment” and “character” aspect of the programme.
What he says seems reasonable. But then I noticed the official Twitter account of the show is using idiotic quotes from the candidates ahead of the launch.
Already, they’re using the opportunity to attract viewers based on the foolish remarks we can expect… but there will be an underlying business message right?
#TheApprentice is back! This time with added unicorns*
*A unicorn is a start-up valued over $1 billion. We can’t promise actual unicorns. pic.twitter.com/zMKqQYry06
— The Apprentice (@bbcapprentice) September 20, 2016
The Same But Different
Every series opens with Sugar pointing out just how difficult the next 12 weeks will be.
The 2015 run (Series 11) did exactly that in the first episode when, with his usual pained expression, the man worth £1.4 billion warned, “This process just got tougher.”
By now we’re accustomed to the boardroom getting-to-know-you banter, the close-up camera, the perfectly timed roll of the eyes, the stinging remarks.
The gurning facial cutaways, together with the “You’re Fired” moments, are filmed in advance and in bulk for logistical reasons, as is the cost-saving lateral nature of television.
According to his autobiography the hard nosed magnate charges the production company for the use of any staff and/or premises, including his own boardroom, but that boardroom, by the way, is just a set in a studio.
Fear Alan’s Finger
The Apprentice likes to “ramp up the camp” for each new series such as in 2013 when the Bondesque series trailer aired.
This highly produced 60 second ad is set to Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger” and depicts Lord Sugar brandishing the so-called “Finger of Fear.”
Here’s the “plot” of the trailer: Lord Sugar goes about his daily life innocently using The Finger to perform everyday activities while unknowingly frightening bystanders.
Raising one hand, index digit primed, it appears he is about to say “you’re fired” but, in a genius twist, instead of admonishing the popular catchphrase, performs actions legitimately in need of The Finger.
For example, he chooses a menu item, presses a buzzer or winds his car window down.
We never see him perform a prostate exam though. 😛
The Same But Cheesier!
How about a scenario where Alan doesn’t point The Finger but presses a button under his desk, opening a trap door and swallowing dismissed contestants?
Mr Burns from The Simpsons has been doing this for years. Perhaps the candidates could be covered in gunge too, just like Saturday nights in the 1990s.
Another scenario is where Lord Sugar (instead of Lord Vader – LOL) searches for a Sith Apprentice to help him run The Empire.
Fear Alan’s Ideas
The 2015 trailer put the entire BBC wardrobe department proudly on display to the backing track “Survivor” by Destiny’s Child.
Although these BBC trailers have nothing technically wrong with them, the ideas are awful. Who are these trailers aimed at? Who is the programme aimed at?
Here’s a clue – in his autobiography Sugar says he’s always targeted the “truck driver and his wife” – the affordable market.
And describing the electronics manufacturing market of the late ’60s and early ’70s he said he saw himself as “the Ford of the industry.”
Amstrad products always had a reputation as being medium quality so that they could be piled high and sold cheap. Hmm.
The Apprentice was commissioned to be broadcast in 2005 on BBC2 – a respected pilot channel for new programming. Then it moved to BBC1 – the same channel that aired Jim Davidson’s Generation Game. Ugh.
A quick YouTube search turned up the very first episode from series 1 and I think you should watch it and compare it to what is currently airing.
What if the The Apprentice had been made for BBC4? It would have trodden different territory, that’s for sure, perhaps ticking the “educational” instead of “entertaining” box.
I know BBC4 is associated with a more cultured audience but in my mind that is the ideal channel to show business and commerce programming.
A reality business series made with earnest would be great, but the perceived problem is that it would never attract high ratings. That’s a shame.
Alan’s Ten Years on TV
It’s interesting to know the origins of the BBC commissioning The Apprentice and the production company that approached him.
The electronics tycoon turned football boss turned tele favourite reveals much in the 2010 bestselling yarn What You See Is What You Get, citing the highs and lows of his career with chapter titles such as “I Don’t Like Liars, Bullshitters, Cheats and Schmoozers”.
One of the extracts from this chapter caught my eye, since what is described seems contradictory:
“As a result, over the years, Nick Hewer received lots of requests for me to be a guest on various chat shows or to be involved in some second-rate TV reality or quiz show, all of which I rejected”
– Alan Sugar, What You See is What You Get
That’s one hell of a statement. Here’s the backstory in more detail:
“In March 2004, a young researcher from the BBC came to Brentwood to talk to me about a reality programme known as The Apprentice. The BBC was considering the programme, which had been successful in America. She gave me the bare bones of the format: a leading businessman such as myself would be presented with fourteen candidates, who would be split into two teams each week and given business tasks. Over the course of a twelve-week period, I would eliminate one candidate each week who’d failed to perform well. The researcher had been sent to check out some potential businessmen to head up the programme. I told her I was mildly interested, but needed more detail. She said she’d get back to me and that was the last I heard.
“I thought no more of it until I went to Florida at Easter-time. Ann told me her American friends there were raving about a programme called The Apprentice, headed up by Donald Trump. Apparently, it was the biggest hit in America and everyone was talking about it. It kind of rang a bell in my mind and I remembered the young lady from the BBC who’d come to visit me in March. When I spoke to people I knew at the tennis club, they also told me how popular The Apprentice was and how they always stayed in to watch it.
“So I was interested (although surprised) when on returning from Florida after Easter, I was contacted by the television production company TalkBack Thames who wanted to talk about – The Apprentice.
“I was interested in doing the show simply because I’d seen it in America and knew how popular it had become. Additionally, I felt it would be an extension to the work I’d done over the years in promoting enterprise and business to young people. It would be an opportunity, in a controlled way, to get my message across – rather like I’d been doing on my round-the-country Q&A trips.”
– Alan Sugar, What You See is What You Get
The candidates are sourced by the production company who outsource to a recruitment agency looking for “characters”, no doubt:
“There was also a lot of discussion about the rules of the tasks, in anticipation of the candidates arguing the toss on what they could and couldn’t do. All this took weeks of to-ing and fro-ing and, to be fair to Talkback, they made me feel part of the team compiling these tasks.
“The selection of candidates, however, was done entirely by Talkback. They placed some advertisements in the national newspapers for people to apply for a business show. Despite the fact no one had heard of The Apprentice, we had thousands of applicants, many of whom just wanted to be on TV.
“The BBC insisted that when Talkback selected the candidates, the application process had to be done in a fair and democratic way. The recruitment process had to take place nationwide – in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow – so as to give the whole of the country a chance. This was part of the BBC’s strict rules and regulations in accordance with their compliance standards”
– Alan Sugar, What You See is What You Get
Ratings always rule:
“It was clear from the way the show was going that, apart from the underlying business message, it was great entertainment seeing these characters performing under pressure, getting stressed and arguing with each other.
“In TV terms, the way they gauge success is the viewing figures. Next day I called Peter Moore and asked him what he thought. He wasn’t exactly jumping up and down. He told me it had achieved something like 1.9 million viewers and I detected a tone of disappointment, as if that wasn’t good enough.
“Word must have started getting around because the numbers started to grow and reached around 3.5 million which is very good for BBC2.”
Stupid Candidates, Bad Business, SEO Hype
In 2014 Alan Sugar invested in the business idea of series winner Mark Wright – the idea being to offer SEO and PPC services to businesses under the brand Climb Online.
While it’s interesting to see this type of business in the limelight, it needs to be said that search engines are a contentious subject and the SEO industry is full of dirty players.
The general viewing public are, on balance, unaware of how SEO works and I was worried small businesses watching might be misled by Mark Wright’s sensational claims and ridiculous tweets touting his supposed abilities.
Sugar knows nothing about this industry, and admitted that, yet Mark Wright came under heavy criticism when the real experts within the industry began to dissect his business.
At the time of the 2014 series final, Mark Wright’s site was down/nonoperational, which didn’t look good at all. Also, webmasters all over the country used website URL explorers to study what type of backlinks were being built for the high profile clients using his services.
Reports around the web accused Mark Wright of outsourcing cheap labour link building to spammy agents in foreign countries – a big no no by today’s standards.
Meanwhile Mark Wright had been quoted as saying I talk the talk, walk the walk, and dance the dance.
Selling SEO and doing SEO are not the same thing. Making big claims requires no skill yet such nonsense is now permanently associated with this television programme.
Why I Won’t Be Watching
I’ve grappled with the idea that business reality TV is connected with business failure. The danger is that uninitiated plonkers watching at home believe they could be successful simply because they could also pull off what they witness the candidates doing.
Normally, the incompetent applicants get filtered out of the “process” but the fact they’re in the running in the first place is worrying.
Early on in the making of the series Sugar himself raised similar concerns:
The second series, which aired on BBC2 in February 2006, went well as far as viewing figures were concerned, and there were some great characters. However, I personally felt that this series wasn’t as professional and that we were getting too close to a Big Brother-type show which concentrates on people arguing. My involvement in the The Apprentice was only on the basis of there being an underlying business message in every episode.
– Alan Sugar, What You See is What You Get
Bottom line: I can no longer be bothered with this television programme. How about you?