Some thoughts on The Apprentice

This year is the first in the 12 years of the BBC’s The Apprentice that I haven’t been watching. I’m not boycotting it or anything, but I have to say that I’m not missing it at all.

It’s weird because, on paper, it’s exactly my kind of show – a business competition; reality TV with an intellectual element. The Apprentice is also a show that I’m arrogant enough to think I would do well in, so there’s that element of yelling obnoxiously at the TV that you get with basically every TV Quiz show that isn’t University Challenge. I love that element of TV.

In fact, a few years ago there was a change to the format of The Apprentice that should have made it even more appealing. Instead of competing to win some obscure job deep in the unknown depths of an Amstrad subsidiary, contestants were gunning for the chance to win money and backing for their own start-up ventures.

It was great news, and entrepreneurs nationwide rejoiced. While there was a lot of speculation as to the ‘real’ reason for the shifting goalposts (most prominent perhaps, the lawsuit by a former Apprentice winner against Lord Sugar), Sugar’s outward reasoning was a strong one. He declared that he wanted to prove to everyone up and down the country that anyone can start a very successful business with a relatively small amount of money. It was, in his own way, a show of force for the enterprising community.

And herein lies my major gripe with the show. Its not that it has become a petty ratings driven hour of drivel. Its not that the show does a shocking job of portraying women in the workplace. And its not that the whole thing is now so formulaic you can predict the outcome from about 20 mins into the first episode.

The show inspires the next generation of entrepreneurs

No. While these are all damning indictments of the show, the issue I wanted to talk about is that the sum of money that people are competing for – the Holy Grail of proof that anyone can start a successful business regardless of circumstance – is £250,000.

Now I know that this, in the grand scheme of business – and certainly to someone like Lord Sugar – is in fact a relatively small sum of money. Its just that if the ‘new’ aim and direction of The Apprentice really was to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs to follow their passions, this seems a big number to jump for right out of the gate.

A counter argument I’ve heard to this train of thought is that the changing focus of the show isn’t to inspire more people to become entrepreneurs, but rather to encourage more people to see The Apprentice as an avenue to explore to that end. I’ll ignore the fact that, if true, this is a ridiculous aim, and instead focus on something else. Roughly the same number of people apply every year for a spot on The Apprentice as do for an undergraduate course at the University of Cambridge. Through the magic of statistics, you are therefore 600 times more likely to gain a place studying at arguably the most prestigious university in the world, than you are to become a contestant in any given year. 

The show acts as an education into the world of entrepreneurship

How about the fact that, just by watching it, you are getting to grips with business saavy that might otherwise escape you? 

On the face of it, this is perhaps not an entirely unreasonable claim. The show does place a focus on profit and loss, on the interactions and sales pitches of the contestants, and on the the ideas that they generate in relatively short spaces of time.

Again though, if this were the aim, The Apprentice falls laughably short. The show holds up these challenges as if they are the Gold Standard of business acumen. Every week they run a different challenge to see which team makes the most ‘profit’ from a task. Yet they utterly fail to take into consideration basic business such as fixed costs, staff time, etc.

Here, I know, I’m being incredibly pedantic. The point is to pit the two teams against each other, so if you assume all their fixed costs are the same it makes for easier viewing to just taking into account how the teams differ. I just think that in so doing you are missing a large chuck of the business mindset. 

Winning the challenges demonstrates the right skills

The biggest respect I ever had for Lord Sugar whilst watching The Apprentice was in one episode a few seasons back. I forget what the task was, but both teams did shockingly poor – it was the kind of thing that I was embarrassed to watch, and I had zero affiliation to anyone close to the programme. The norm is that the winning team every week gets a reward – a track day at Silverstone, a night making cocktails at some high end London club, etc. In this particular case, there was a winner for the task – or rather, one team did less poorly than the other. However, Sugar was so incensed with how badly everyone had done that no team got a reward.

I’ll skip over the fact that the entitled bunch reacted as if someone had shot their cat, and instead ask: why isn’t this the norm? Shouldn’t they have to fight for the prize? If the aim of The Apprentice really was to make better business people (let’s not forget that the show is aired by the BBC, whose mission statement is to “…inform, educate and entertain.” – so it isn’t totally out of the question), wouldn’t that make more sense?

Instead the show seems to reward arrogance and deceit, just as much as good business sense. I don’t mean to get all high-and-mighty, but all of the negative connotations we have about entrepreneurship and business, The Apprentice glorifies. And that’s totally fine – I love watching people have it out in the boardroom as much as the next person. But let’s not pretend we’re watching anything other than that. And let’s certainly not pretend that The Apprentice is doing anything good for the UK’s future and existing entrepreneurs.

I started this post by saying that I wasn’t intentionally boycotting The Apprentice, and then proceeded to take 800 words to argue how bad it is. I’m not actively taking a stand against the show, and I do recognise that it does represent some of the better television entertainment that exists (there’s a separate discussion to be had as to what that says about TV today…). And, of course, if you watch it I hope this series is a good one.

I guess my problem, ultimately, is that if the show needs to justify itself (and it does – every single show on the BBC does) it falls very far short.

All of that said, I might well tune in for the penultimate episode. While I stand by everything I’ve just said, the interviews do make for great television.

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