Are the public still sweet on Lord Sugar’s The Apprentice?

AS THE latest batch of Lord Sugar’s hopefuls are revealed, Martyn McLaughlin asks if The Apprentice is in danger of overstretching its brand

WITH CVs featuring tales of shark diving and wrestling, they could hardly be said to be typical constituents of the white-collar world of British business.

But in The Apprentice, the often dull realities of budding entrepreneurship must always be tempered with that hallmark of good television – entertaining, human stories.

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It is a recipe that has, so far, proved a resounding success. A franchise now in its seventh year, the BBC programme routinely attracts millions of viewers, and has won a clutch of awards from admiring industry onlookers.

Yet as Lord Alan Sugar sharpens his acerbic one-liners in preparation for an eighth series, is it a format that is becoming tired, divorced from the realm of business it seeks to portray? Should it, to borrow the parlance of its gruff ringleader, be fired?

For its part, the BBC would disagree vehemently. Since its first airing in 2005, The Apprentice has become one of the corporation’s flagship products, and it has enjoyed increases to its viewing audience with every series. The eighth series, which begins next on 21 March on BBC1, is likely to be no different.

At a press call yesterday to unveil the new candidates, each vying for £250,000 of investment in their concept, the latest batch of would-be tycoons exhibited a now customary immodesty when asked what they would bring to the table, including Laura Hogg, a 28-year-old bridal shop owner from Glasgow who vowed she was poised to become “one of Scotland’s next big exports”.

Such boldness and brashness has long been a feature of those seeking to impress Lord Sugar, but the current crop undoubtedly boast far more colourful pasts than those who took part in the maiden series.

Back then, Sir Alan Sugar had to pick from advertising sales executives, charity fundraisers, recruitment specialists and communications consultants. Now, though, his choice includes a woman who goes by the nickname ‘The Blonde Assassin’ and a professional wrestler who boasts that he is the “reflection of perfection.”

Those in the media industry who have watched the show’s evolution believe it has strayed from its original purpose. Jonathan Gabay, a respected commentator on media and PR issues, said that the greatest danger to the ongoing success of The Apprentice is one common to all reality television shows: becoming outlandish in an attempt to garner viewers.

Gabay, the founder of Brand Forensics, explained: “If you look at The Apprentice from the point of view of pure, hard-nosed business, it is so far away from that world it’s ridiculous, it’s got less and less to do with showing people how to become successful in business.

“It may have started off with that intention, but I would say that in 2012, that part of the concept is only about 45 per cent of the show. The rest of it is about people – if you look at it from the point of view of a reality programme, it’s a success.”

It is an opinion probably shared by many of The Apprentice’s loyal viewers, but given that audience numbers continue to ride high, the question must be asked why they continue tune in.

One man well placed to answer is Professor Raymond Boyle from the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Cultural Policy Research. He is the co-author of a new book, Television Entrepreneurs, published by Ashgate, which seeks to assess what influence, if any, such shows have in encouraging people to start up their own business.

“The Apprentice and Dragons’ Den are the best known, but there’s a whole plethora of entrepreneurial shows, like Mary Queen of Shops and The Secret Millionaire,” he says. “The Apprentice is clever in that it has a number of layers to it, and people watch it for different reasons.

“We held focus groups in Glasgow and London and we found people viewed The Apprentice quite differently. Those in business watch it for light entertainment. The real hardcore business experts feel it’s a misrepresentation of business, but even though they said it was inaccurate they recognised its impact.

“Young people who are maybe considering setting up their own company took away from the programme what you would call ‘soft skills’ – ideas about presentations, business plans, or rudimentary accounts. But those people aren’t watching The Apprentice in isolation. They’ll be doing other research or perhaps taking courses about business.”

According to a 2010 study by the University of Strathclyde and Aston Business School, few people who watch entrepreneurial-themed shows regard them as accurate portrayals of the business world, with a survey showing that 40.7 per cent of people who tuned into The Apprentice did so for entertainment. 6.6 per cent said it was a “realistic depiction of what it is like to start or run a business”, while 48.4 per cent said they enjoyed a “bit of both” aspects of the show.

Indeed, even some of those who incurred the wrath of Lord Sugar when taking part in the programme believe the portrayal of business and entrepreneurship is the last thing on the minds of the producers.

Former contestants Lucinda Ledgerwood and James Max have criticised the tasks on the show as being too heavily sales-focused and designed for entertainment rather than as tests of all-round business skills, while one-time candidates, Syed Ahmed and Tre Azam, accused the show of dumbing down their appearances for entertainment purposes.

None of the mud has stuck, however. Along with the main programme, there have been a series of spin-offs such as Junior Apprentice and the increasingly common ‘backstage’ shows designed to complement the primary format, such as The Apprentice: You’re Fired. The BBC has also broadcast innumerable compilations and documentaries around the brand, including Motor Mouths, The Worst Decision Ever, and Beyond the Boardroom.

The last run, which culminated in July 2011 when Lord Sugar anointed Tom Pellereau, drew a peak audience of 10.7 million people, with the two-hour long finale averaging 9.1 million viewers overall and grabbing an audience share of 36 per cent.

But some fear the prodigious output could leave The Apprentice overexposed, in danger of succumbing to the same fate as Big Brother, a once all-conquering Channel 4 show which haemorrhaged viewers, and can now be found on Channel 5.

Gabay points to the trend known as “brand stretching,” and warned the producers against seeking out a succession of extreme characters. He says: “If you become too outlandish, people will watch it for that reason only. A show like Jersey Shore, for example, is all about getting viewers to say to one another, ‘Did you see what he or she did last night?’. At which point do you say ‘enough is enough’?”

Boyle says: “Our research was based on series six and seven, but by the time you get to series eight there might be a problem with the format getting slightly tired and candidates playing up to the format. There’s a bit of mileage in it left, but the challenges will be stopping candidates on the show who are roleplaying just to get a career in the media.” Whatever the future holds, business at The Apprentice is currently in rude health. Lord Sugar may have been served a few written warnings, but he is no danger of being fired just yet.