Put real business on TV and I’ll reach for the remote

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Business telly, so the newspapers tell us, is “the new rock and roll”. This isn’t saying much as in the last week alone opera, literary festivals, fatherhood, private equity and farming have all been held up in the UK press as being the new rock and roll too.

Yet business TV has more claim to the cliché than most. While it isn’t exactly cool, it is increasingly popular – which is more than can be said for farming or fatherhood. There is The Apprentice, Dragons’ Den and now a new series, Tycoon, and all attract enormous audiences.

Earlier this month 6.2m people watched The Apprentice – nearly twice as many as a documentary that was on the other side about Princess Diana dying in a tunnel.

There is a catch. The reason these programmes do so well is not because business is suddenly fashionable, but because they don’t have anything to do with business at all. Take the new show, Tycoon. In it Peter Jones, the handsome-ish entrepreneur who is also on Dragons’ Den, is helping “ordinary people” launch their own businesses. One of these ordinary people is an ex-Page 3 model, another a former bodyguard to the Sultan of Brunei and a third a winner of the World Karaoke Championships. This is freak-show TV, as much like real business as Big Brother is like real life.

A couple of months ago I was a judge on the Wincott awards for business broadcasting, which hands out prizes to programmes that teach their audiences something. My fellow judges were so disgusted at the TV entries that we nearly failed to hand out one of the prizes at all. They moaned both about the narrow-mindedness of commissioning editors and the very bad light that programmes like The Apprentice cast on business.

On reflection, I think we had it wrong. The fault isn’t with commissioning editors: it’s with business itself. Real business simply isn’t suited to mass-market telly and never will be. And as these shows aren’t actually about business it doesn’t matter what light they show it in.

Instead they are about power, money, personalities, winning, ruthlessness and punchy one-liners. Real business isn’t about any of the above. It is loosely about power and money, but sightings of either in pure form are rare since they are buried under thick layers of office life.

Peter Jones has promised that The Tycoon has “take-homes” to help one in starting a business. But for me, the main take-home from last Tuesday’s episode was the extraordinary cleavage of the Page 3 model. This reminded me of a story I had read in the Sunday Times two days earlier about an experiment in which an actress gave an identical presentation to an audience, the only difference being the amount of padding in her bra. She presented four times, in an A, B, C, and D cup, and each time her audience was asked to rate her on her professionalism.

The results were quite clear. The woman with the B and C cups scored most highly, and the A and D cups rather lower.

Doubtless the experiment was tosh, but the result was still revealing. In business there is a tendency towards the middle ground in everything, cup-size included. On telly the opposite is true. Office workers return home from a day of conformity and compromise and want to watch something extreme and escapist on the box.

Take conflict. Successful business telly requires a lot of this. Here is conflict, Tycoon-style: “I thought you had balls of steel. Actually you’ve got balls of papier-mâché,” says Jones to a cowardly hopeful. In offices people don’t comment on the balls of others. Cowardly workers tend to be frozen out and ignored. They don’t get asked to meetings and their e-mails tend not to get answered. This sort of silent warfare doesn’t make good TV.

Another mighty difference is personality. In business a personality is a handicap; in telly it is a necessity. With ruthlessness, the same applies. It looks good on the TV, but as being horrid in real life is stressful and difficult, most people avoid it where possible.

Above all, business telly is about winning, while real business is rather less about this than you might think. In big companies, at least, it is often hard to tell who the winners are. Executives make decisions. A few years later there are results, but it is difficult to untangle how much success was due to which decision or who was responsible for any of it.

The problem with real business is not that it is boring but that it is hard to describe in a way that is both appealing and vaguely accurate. I don’t think I’ve ever sat next to a business person at a dinner party and heard them talk engagingly about their work. Talking shop is only interesting to other people who are familiar with the shop in question.

At work managers do two things. They go to meetings, which are almost always too long and too dull. And they send e-mails. Most of them say that they’d like to think, only it’s hard to find the time.

There is only one way of capturing the truth of this world, and that is satire. The truest business programme yet made is not The Apprentice. It is The Office.

lucy.kellaway@ft.com

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