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April 26, 2006

The unreality of reality television: Harry Phibbs asks, why would anyone make the bizarre decision to appear on The Apprentice?

Posted by Harry Phibbs

The Apprentice

Harry Phibbs ask, why would anyone make the bizarre decision to appear on The Apprentice?

In real life it is terribly difficult to sack someone. There are all these requirements for warnings, procedures, the threat of being taken to a tribunal by the person who has been sacked and so on and so forth. In the public sector being sacked is virtually unheard of. In this "reality TV" show somebody is "fired" - that is eliminated from the contest - every week. Two teams of contestants (sometimes split into males and females) are given the same task (usually to make as much money as possible from some designated activity.)

There is no phone-in here,
Sir Alan tells the contestants who are given a task each week with the prize of a well paid job working for him.
There is no text a number. There is no panel of judges. I'm the one who decides who gets fired, and I'm going to be the one ultimately who decides who gets hired.
There is also no Human Resources written warning, EU Social Chapter rights at work provision, trade union representations, etc.

Of course it is this ruthless unreality that makes the series compelling. Sugar has built up a business empire worth 800 million. Other people, such as the inventor Sir Clive Sinclair may have greater brain power, they might be better at coming up with ideas. But Sugar has proved supreme in ruthlessly exploiting them. The mass market in home computers needs both Sinclair to invent them but also the brash Sugar to sell them.

One element to succeeding in this competition is to do well in the task allocated. To be on the winning team and thus unsackable, or if one is on the losing team to be able to show the failure was despite, rather than because, of the role one played.

But another skill is getting on with Sir Alan. Knowing when to agree with him, when to answer back. Tricky. He is a domineering character but if nobody answered back at all there wouldn't be much sport in it.

In one of the episodes in the original series last year the Amstrad boss becomes exasperated with one of the contestants.

That's unfair,
says the contestant. Sir Alan gives him a severe rebuke:
There's me thinking we run a dog eat dog business and we're talking about fair. Listen, we don't do fair here. The only fair you're going to get is your bloody train fare home.
The current series, as with last year, has seen an excruciating Battle of the Sexes. Of course the editing process exaggerates the impression but the women come across as in a perpetual cat fight. The men have also demonstrated some unattractive macho posturing. It was a relief when the sexes were integrated a few weeks into the show, not that this led to a complete outbreak of political correctness.

Management consultant Mani Sandher is put in charge of the girls team. Sir Alan says:

Mani, we're going to see your skills not only in business but how you can manage a bunch of women also.
Like a lot of successful businessmen Sugar is uncultured and unsophisticated. Perhaps this lack of pretension helps him maintain a clear understanding of the basics.

In the current series the contestant who has stuck out most strongly is Jo Cameron. She has been the most outspoken when unhappy with the approach adopted by her fellow team members. Sometimes she was vindicated - for instance in speaking out against using kittens as the pictures on a fund raising calendar for Great Ormond Street Hospital on the grounds that it had no relevance. But her concerns had a tendency to be voiced in a hysterical manner which was both debilitating for morale and destined to mean they weren't properly addressed. On other occasions she would show little sense of time or interest in following the brief given. She was finally sacked after her difficulty selling used cars. The scattiness included leaving a SOLD sign on a car for four hours when the sale had actually fallen through because no deal had been reached on the part exchange. Exceptionally, when she was told she was fired she answered back and said Sir Alan might like:

a chance to change his mind.
By definition the contestants are egomaniacs. There are strengths and weaknesses in this. There is a sense that they are all genuinely concerned to win. They are highly driven. But they are all hopeless at accepting criticism. As salesmen they often talk too much. There is some suspicion that Sugar chose not to sack Jo earlier because the ratings were helped by the continued presence of "characters" and the unpredictability of who is going to be ditched.

There is a caveat about television, especially supposed "reality television". We only see a fraction of the total film footage. A friend of mine once got stitched up on one of these programmes being shown endlessly pouring herself a drink - but over months of filming it is easy enough to convey a misleading impression. So, for instance, a contestant can be protrayed as lazy or energetic, failing or succeeding, happy or sad, etc, through this simple mechanism. In this regard television is both a more powerful and more dishonest medium that the press. The television commentator doesn't need to say someone is an alcoholic - just show lots of footage of them drinking and let us draw our own conclusions.

When I did jury service the judge declared that we shouldn't discuss the case with anyone else because they might influence us with outspoken views on very selective information. That is rather the feeling I have about those who make the bizarre decision to appear on these TV programmes.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.

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