Has The Apprentice jumped the shark?

Apprentice logoEven as a die-hard fan of The Apprentice, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the shining star in the firmament of the BBC’s business-related programming has started to wane over the past couple of years. After eight seasons of the main show and three of the now-cancelled Junior/Young Apprentice there’s a feeling of stagnation and a growing realisation that the winner’s prize – at first a £100,000-a-year job, more recently a business investment fund – is perhaps not all it was cracked up to be.

On the one hand, after eight years the series continues to be a guaranteed ratings winner for the BBC. Last summer’s eighth season regularly pulled in 7-8 million viewers, with each episode featuring in BBC1’s weekly top ten most-viewed programmes. And the pre-Christmas run of Young Apprentice, the third and final edition of the junior spin-off, maintained a consistent audience of over four million.

However, the viewing figures for season eight were considerably down on the previous year, with just 7.0 million viewers tuning in to see Ricky Martin win, versus 10.2 million for the previous year’s final. And, unusually for the show, audience numbers trended downwards during the run, peaking at a shade over 8.0 million for episode four, with the final being the second least-viewed instalment of the run.

It’s hard to escape the feeling that The Apprentice’s best days are firmly in its past, with last year’s declining trend a distinct concern. While still entertaining, both 2012 editions produced few truly memorable – by which I mean jaw-droppingly awful – moments, and I couldn’t help but feel that we have seen all the ‘characters’ before, making the same mistakes in the same tasks the series has been rolling out since its inception.

Stella English's time with Sugar came to an abrupt end (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Stella English’s time with Sugar came to an abrupt end (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

And the series isn’t just suffering front-of-house either. Behind the scenes, the history of Apprentice winners is uniformly sketchy. Most former winners have left Sugar’s employ within two years, and season six winner Stella English is currently suing for constructive dismissal, after claiming that the job she was given at Sugar’s IT company Viglen was nothing more than that of an “overpaid lackey”, as resentful colleagues claimed she had replaced a woman who had been earning just £35,000pa.

The following year’s winner, Tom Pellereau – the first to receive a business investment rather than a one-year contract – had a task record of three wins and eight losses and proved to be a poor project manager. In many viewers’ eyes his victory undermined the credibility of the programme, although in reality it merely highlighted the poor fit between the weekly tasks and the new prize. Pellereau, as an inventor with previous successful commercial launches, was in fact an ideal investment in spite of his poor task performance.

Even the most recent batch of Young Apprentices left me feeling jaded, as the youthful enthusiasm and innocence of previous candidates was replaced by an increasingly cynical, cover-your-own-arse outlook which mirrored the least appealing behaviours of their grown-up counterparts.

Has The Apprentice jumped the shark? For me, the series is now well on its down-slope and in need of some tweaking to reinvigorate what is threatening to become a tired format.

Revamping the series

It’s easy to point out the problems with a show, but what about potential solutions? For starters, here are a few ideas – most relatively small and straightforward, with one at the end which requires a fundamental rethink of the format.

1. More credible candidates. In any given edition, there appear to be no more than three or four genuinely viable candidates, with the rest ticking various ‘character’ boxes to make good TV: the blagger, the quiet one, the posh idiot and so on. I’m not saying every candidate should be ‘serious’ – this is supposed to be entertainment, after all – but pushing the mix closer to 50:50 wouldn’t hurt, would it?

2. New, less sales-oriented tasks. Historically, the vast majority of tasks involve making/selecting/buying some products and then selling them to either businesses or direct to consumers. Scrap a few of the old ones and bring in new tasks which focus on business skills other than sales.

3. Projects which have a meaningful output. Virtually every task is ‘disposable’, in the sense that the teams end with an output (e.g. a temporary business, a TV ad) which is never intended to see the light of day. This encourages candidates to take a short-term approach, slashing quality and costs (because they don’t need to worry about repeat business) or offering impractical multi-million pound advertising campaigns (because they’ll never have to pay for them). Real businesses don’t work like that. But what if tasks had a genuine output? For instance, how about getting the teams to market or raise funding for community projects? That would discourage short-termism, as well as having a (potentially) genuinely useful outcome.

4. One big task. Finally, given that the winner’s prize is now a fund to be invested in their business idea, why not realign the entire series to replicate a proper business start-up? Instead of having individual unrelated tasks, ask the two teams to develop an idea for a new business and see it through from start to finish. So, for instance, episode one could revolve around coming up with a workable idea, with subsequent tasks focussing on different elements of the start-up process: researching the market and potential customers, creating a brand, product manufacture/selection, pitching to potential buyers/investors, marketing/launch campaigns and so on. At least this way a genuine all-round entrepreneur would be more likely to emerge as a winner, rather than it being a test of who the best project manager is. It would also allow time to focus a bit more on the business element of tasks (without turning it into a Business 101 programme).

Anyhow, those are my suggestions for reviving The Apprentice. Feel free to add any ideas of your own in the comments below.

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4 Comments on Has The Apprentice jumped the shark?

  1. I agree with all four ideas of revamping, especially the last two points. The Stella English case has proved that the show has nothing to do with the reality, and so why not scrap all the selling and short-term tasks and actually show how real businesses work in long-term projects. Of course it will be harder then to identify who to ‘fire’ each week and would you have different project managers each week? I don’t know if the next series has started filming or not but do wonder if Sugar has lost all credibility now and perhaps the best idea of a revamp is to bring in a new ‘boss’ and new sidekicks as Hewer and Brady have also lost their appeal.

    • The one thing the BBC does rathe well is to disguise the fact that Sugar’s business ’empire’ isn’t actually that big. The part that people know best, Amstrad, is now owned by BSkyB. And a large amount of his wealth now comes from the property business Amsprop, Yes, there’s also Amsair, Amscreen, Viglen and Youview (anything else?), but none of those are particularly big businesses, and in the case of Viglen at least I understand Sugar is no longer actively involved in the running of the company.

      Nick and Karren have been downplayed quite a bit over the past year or two, haven’t they? It used to be that every episode they (and Margaret before them) would have at least a couple of ‘moments’ of their own, but now entire episodes can go by without them contributing more than a soundbite for context in the boardroom.

      Of course we’ll never see it, but I’d love to know how the series would pan out if Richard Branson (who I believe turned the show down initially) or, say, Theo Paphitis replaced Sugar.

  2. I agree with your ideas as well, Tim but I’d add a fifth one: rest the show for a few years first. Familiarity breeds contempt in reality tv – shows like The Apprentice and X Factor are losing viewers because people are too used to the format and know what’s coming. We’ve all seen the same “twists” and set-ups and manipulations so many times that we’re fed up with them. I think we need a few years to miss the show a bit, get nostalgic about the good old days, then be glad to see it come back with the changes you suggest.

    • I agree that we’re at that ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ phase, where I now automatically start every season comparing each contestant to a past one – “ah, he’s/she’s this year’s Stuart Baggs/Ruth Badger/Nicholas De Poshy-Washy-Whimsy-Flimsy” – and (correctly) predicting the key moments of each task before each episode begins. It’s still a good show, just a bit jaded, predictable and too set in its own ways, and all the little things that merely irked me before – Sugar himself, the lack of business content, Sugar, the fact that cheap & cheerful always wins, did I mention Sugar already? – are becoming increasingly hard to ignore.

      I think I’m going to start a ‘Sugar out, Theo in’ campaign. Not because I expect it to succeed, more because it will give me an outlet for my negativity … 🙂

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