How to get ahead in business television

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Something has happened to the image of business in popular culture. “It is,” says Peter Jones, “the new rock and roll. It is as sexy as Robbie Williams.” Jones is, in part, being narcissistic. Very tall, handsome, conspicuously wealthy from his own efforts, he has projected himself as a judge (“dragon”) in the aspiring entrepreneurs’ TV show Dragons’ Den, and hopes to project himself still further in the new series Tycoon (on ITV1 from Tuesday). He is role model, illusion-buster and mentor: Look at me, I’m rich! You won’t get rich that way! Learn from me how to get rich!

Business television is now vastly popular, both in the UK and the US. But it is popular in a particular way. The Donald Trump show The Apprentice in the US, and the UK’s show of the same name hosted by Sir Alan Sugar, together with the Japanese-derived Dragons’ Den, are aspirational television. They feature very successful people who ask a series of carefully chosen contestants: do you sincerely want to be rich? If the answer is yes (as it invariably is: that’s why they’re there) then there are hoops to go through. In going through them, courage, nerve and ruthlessness – aspects of character – are all displayed, to the judges and to the audience. The winner takes all – money, a big job. The losers are fired. The shows combine the pleasures of voyeurism, the instructiveness of how-to-do-it manuals and the savage fun of the Roman circus. And they offer people a chance.

Business has been – and still is – represented on TV in different genres. Business news finds niches on the big networks, on the cable news programmes and, in the past three decades, on specialised business news channels such as Bloomberg and CNBC. These two, hugely boosted by the dotcom and stock market booms of the 1990s, fell back sharply in the late part of the decade but have since recovered some market share and, through satellite and cable, command worldwide audiences of many millions.

Business has long had its own documentary series, from the now venerable BBC2 Money Programme, which began in 1966, to the present daily Working Lunch, which first aired in 1994. Their presentations vary: Money Programme is and has usually been serious, documentary-based, strong on narrative, coolly detached. Working Lunch is more quirky and cheery with a frontman, Adrian Chiles (until earlier this year), who made his name first as a sports presenter. Business and economic journalists have tended to the serious, even solemn. Peter Jay, the BBC’s economics editor in the 1990s, had been economics editor of The Times, presenter of current affairs programme Weekend World and UK ambassador to Washington. Will Hutton, economics correspondent on Newsnight in the 1980s, became economics editor of The Guardian, editor of The Observer and is now head of the charity The Work Foundation.

TV, especially the BBC, is often accused of a leftist-liberal bias against business. To be sure, there is at least an undertone of the view that business is for bastards (Working Lunch’s titles feature a goldfish escaping from a shark: Money Programme’s theme tune, “The Cat”, comes from the film The Carpetbaggers). But an independent report last month for the BBC Trust, the body that oversees the broadcaster, found “no systematic bias” but instead “unconsciously partial lapses” – into attitudes that could be both too anti- and too pro-business (occasional sycophancy to large business figures was noted). When Greg Dyke came to run the BBC in 2000, he thought the business coverage too skewed towards seeing corporations through the eyes of aggrieved workers or trade unions, and appointed as business editor the strongly pro-business Jeff Randall (now an editor-at-large at The Daily Telegraph). Seven years later, the report for the Trust believes it too consumer biased, with a “polarisation of views between business and the consumer [meaning] that much of the ground in between is lost”.

The few fictional programmes that use business as a context have generally been comedies. Business was seen to lend itself to satire, because it was assumed to be a context in which human failings of greed and envy were on display. Comedies such as The Office take their humour from the dreariness and incompetence of office life. Currently running are two dire series – Mumbai Calling (ITV1) and The Scum Also Rises (BBC3): the first takes place in a call centre run by two Jews and an Indian and trades heavily on the stereotypes of both; the other, much worse, is set in an advertising agency full of dysfunctional and pirhana-like characters (boss to pirhana: “I like you, Keaton: you’ve grasped the essential soullessness of the business”).

Business has not had a bad press but it has had bad images, both from Hollywood and on TV. The documentaries were often about business failure. The new wave of business programmes of the 1990s – Trouble at the Top and Blood on the Carpet, both created by producer Robert Thirkell – were often as dystopian as their names suggest.

Now, business TV is reality TV. For the past six decades, “reality television” has struggled to be born. Its origins are in the US Candid Camera shows of the 1940s; the US talent shows of the 1950s; in the work of the artist and radical documentary maker Paul Watson, whose 1974 series The Family was the first UK “fly on the wall” series; in the documentaries of the New York-born Roger Graef, also “fly on the wall” and usually shot within hitherto closed institutions, such as police forces, hospitals and government departments. In the early 1990s, the Troubleshooter series (produced by Thirkell) showed former ICI chairman Sir John Harvey-Jones act as company doctor to troubled firms – establishing a blunt style then rare on TV. Thirkell, himself up from the BBC equivalent of the shop floor – he began as a clerk in 1975 – is often credited with inventing the new-style business programmes. When he left to form his own TV production company five years ago, Glenwyn Benson, the head of the BBC’s factual programmes, said he had “revolutionised the way business programmes were made for TV” and brought in a younger audience.

The key was increasingly to let the people speak and act at length, in their own ways. But it was the construction of an environment of stress that made the popular breakthrough and paved the way for current business series – both in the US TV series Survivor and, from 1999, the Dutch-invented Big Brother, putting contestants in a virtual house environment for weeks, the winner being s/he who was voted to stay in last by viewers. The format now creates moral dilemmas – real or virtual – round the world. It showed real people could not just be interesting, but be stars.

In this, the germ of Jones’s “new rock and roll” was born – in The Apprentice format (2004), again invented in the US, with the property magnate Donald Trump judging among contestants who would make the grade as a senior executive – on $250,000 a year – in his organisation. Though the US versions and its UK derivative have obvious local differences, the key factors are the same: Trump and Sugar project themselves as hard-driving, high-profile and harsh on weakness; they are assisted by long-time, real-life associates; they don’t suffer fools gladly and weaklings (as they would define those without the sufficient ruthlessness) not at all. Both, especially Sugar, have more than a hint of the stern and exacting father; one for whose favour the generally much younger contestants must work hard, and often fail to gain. And not just favour: as in the US, the prize is a high-level job in Sugar’s organisation, on £100,000 a year.

In 2001, a little before The Apprentice, Nippon TV of Japan developed Dragons’ Den, in which would-be entrepreneurs pitch investment opportunities to a five-person panel of business people, the winners receiving the investment they want from the “dragons”. The shows were “real” in that the contestants really had an idea, really did need the money and, if successful, really do receive it from one or more of the dragons and really do try to make their dream come true.

Peter Jones, a UK “dragon”, is now developing and filming Tycoon, his own new business show format. Leyla Smith, head of alternative (which means “reality”) programmes at ITV1, who has commissioned Jones to do the series, says with affection: “Peter is a good-looking guy, he has a Bentley, he has a private plane, he’s made a fortune, lost it, made it again. He is very inspirational!” In an interview, Jones, modifying his earlier example of Robbie Williams, said that “the difference with rock and roll is that not everyone can become a star but everyone has an idea and can become an entrepreneur”. Smith says Tycoon is “not about pitching yourself or ideas, like Apprentice and Dragons’ Den. We want to inspire people. We want to create a tycoon on television!”

Dragons’ Den and, especially, The Apprentice take inspiration and ambition, and hose it down with brutality, humiliation and the stripping away of layers of character. In Sugar’s show, he says things like “Don’t waste my time!” and “You’re a bloody loser!” and “You’re all talk and no do!”. The apprentices are encouraged to be as ruthless as Sugar: in the series that ended this week – with victory for 27-year-old, Cambridge educated Simon Ambrose – Tre Azam, an apprentice fired earlier, commented to the camera that, as a team leader, “I’ve got people [beep]ing themselves when they come up to me and that’s great!” A black woman named Jadine Johnson broke down in the course of performing a task because she missed her nine-year-old daughter (the contestants must live in the same house, with limited opportunities to phone home), didn’t attend a briefing session, was blamed by Tre for being emotionally unstable and was fired – and filmed leaving the boardroom in tears.

But she doesn’t seem to see it as cruel. Interviewed by the MSN Entertainment website, she said she had subsequently been headhunted by a finance company to head up a 10-strong debt management team – and had been complimented by Grazia magazine for her fashion sense. When I talked to a young woman named Alexa Tilley, who had been a consultant with Cap Gemini when she took part in, and was fired from, last year’s Apprentice, she said it had been “quite tough” to be fired (she had lasted four weeks) but “you go in with your eyes open – and it has helped me a lot. You think: if I can do this I can do anything. It’s given me more confidence, helped me to speak in public and encouraged me to help others who want to get started in business”. Tilley says she – and all contestants – had to sign a confidentiality agreement, and was nervous of trespassing it It may be that that agreement, both for her and Johnson, limited more critical comments. Still, there is no reason to doubt that the experience was, as they maintain, positive.

The sensation of this series has been Katie Hopkins, a successful (£90,000 a year) businesswoman of 31, who attracted attention by her caustic comments on fellow contestants (example: “Whenever there’s an issue Kristina tried to cover her arse. It’s a shame she doesn’t do it a little better with the skirts she wears”); by boosting her ruthlessness, boasting that she had an affair with a man married to a friend; and above all, by “firing” Sugar because, as she explained, she had changed her mind about wishing to work with him because she didn’t want to uproot her two young children from their Devon home.

Appearing two weeks ago on a show in which the losers were faced with another jury, she was put down by its members, booed by the audience and remained radiant and witty, finally garnering some cheers. The Guardian gathered a jury of women writers, academics and actresses to debate if she was a super-bitch or a feminist hero, or the latter by being the former.

Hopkins now has a showbiz agent who is fielding media proposals and newspaper bids for her story – a situation which, it’s generally assumed, she wished to engineer rather than win the apprenticeship.

Dragons’ Den is a little less hothouse – the contestants don’t live together and they pitch an idea rather than themselves. It’s introduced by the BBC economics editor Evan Davis, which frames it in a more comfortable environment than The Apprentice; no contestant that I have seen ended in tears. But the dragons do say Sugar-like things – “It’s weird so you must be weird”; “I would rather pass a kidney stone than invest in this!”

Tycoon will see six people, again selected from many thousands, who want to be millionaires given £10,000 of Peter Jones’s money and 10 weeks in which to prove themselves. Jones admits this is harsh and unrealistic; but says it’s a good test of mettle.

The critique of these shows is that they show character (or lack of it), drama, pressure and sometimes sexual frisson – but aren’t helpful to an understanding of business. Christo Hird, founder and head of Fulcrum TV, who has produced a raft of films about issues of current affairs, business and finance, says: “What these shows do is demonstrate that the audience’s emotional intelligence is growing, but not its rational intelligence. They have the following building blocks: strong characters; confrontation – and jeopardy, the knowledge that you can lose or win a great deal. TV commissioning editors want programmes which have a definite ending, which come in with a result, which are upbeat. They are in revolt against what they see as the trends of the 1970s and 1980s – do-gooding, preachy programmes.”

BBC2 controller Roly Keating partly confirmed Hird’s view: in a speech in November 2005, he said that “viewers get emotionally involved with the protagonists – and that emotional engagement makes it possible for them to learn naturally.”

“It means,” says Hird, “that films about, say, private equity funds, very important institutions, won’t get made unless you get access, fly-on-the-wall – and, of course, you won’t because these people are paranoid. We made a programme about the rise, fall and rise again of Marks and Spencer – the first such for a very long time.” (The film, a carefully made and engrossing documentary, is in the classic mould: a sober commentary, lots of shots of M&S stores, interviews with participants and observers: no “reality”, no on-screen emotion, no sex beyond shots of lingerie models).

Hird, who chairs the jury of the Wincott Prize for business documentaries (named for former FT journalist Harold Wincott, who left a legacy to set up a foundation to encourage good business journalism) awarded it this year to a film about the private finance initiative – a programme for Channel 4 by Sunday Telegraph economics editor Liam Halligan, which forcefully argues that PFI has been a failure. It, too, is in the classic format, with a strong dose of Halligan’s distaste for the project.

Hird has co-produced, on a very tight budget, a film called Black Gold, now on release – a film angrier and more powerful than Halligan’s, which shows Ethiopian coffee farmers reduced to destitution by the lowering of the coffee bean prices. It makes its points by intercutting their misery with the sybaritic leisure of the west’s coffee-drinking classes. This, he hopes, will be a cinema hit.

Both of these are hardcore “preachy” – and, Hird says, “they now don’t get a look in [on television today]. I’m trying to do a film called End of the Line, about the depletion of fish stocks – which, if continued, could mean destitution and even death for hundreds of thousands dependent on fishing. We won’t get a commission: we need to get money from different sources.”

I put Hird’s points to both Jones and Smith of ITV. “The market has decided,” says Jones, “on the reality format.” Smith comments: “I don’t agree with the line that these programmes have crowded out the documentaries. They are there; you can find them; there is a lot of current affairs, if you want it you can get it. The programmes which were the business programmes, like the Money Programme now seem very dry. They don’t inspire. “So, yes, the market has decided.”

John Lloyd is the FT’s television critic.

Gung-ho approach to business

A bald, middle-aged man with sleeves rolled suspiciously high sounds a klaxon, shoots himself in the head with a toy gun and begins to ululate, writes Ed Holland. That’s James Cramer, superstar stock analyst on CNBC, delivering his verdict on some company or other. It is not necessarily negative.

Business coverage on American television was not always like this. Back in 1970, Louis Rukeyser invented the genre with Wall $treet Week, just in time for the conspicuously un-roaring decade ahead. Rukeyser would deliver his commentary on the week’s financial news, read out some market statistics and engage in urbane chat with experts. At the end of the year, he would don black tie to announce his predictions for the next 12 months.

Almost 40 years later, after rivals such as CNNfn and Moneyline have come and gone, CNBC is top dog among business channels. With its flashing lights and loud noises, it is derided for drawing in viewers by treating business like sports or some kind of gladiatorial combat. But one wonders how hard they need to try. Wall $treet Week sounds amusingly staid by comparison but the show, even at time when business was generally awful and mass stock ownership didn’t exist, was a hit. At its peak, it reached 6m households. Americans, it seems, like to watch news about business, whatever it looks like.

Many people think CNBC is a market booster, if only to the extent that its presenters look happier when stocks are going up. But even the debonair Rukeyser was not the model of Olympian detachment we sometimes imagine TV presenters of the past to be. He was considered to be determinedly sanguine about the economy and fired a panellist after she made weeks of bearish forecasts.

CNBC has its absurdities (“Join us for the countdown to the Fed statement”) but what it really exudes, for better or worse, is a kind of relentless enthusiasm. They really do seem to like this stuff. In my 10 years of desultory CNBC-watching, Rick Santelli, the Treasury market correspondent, has been reporting on exactly the same thing, at exactly the same place, at exactly the same time. Yet his excitement does not seem to have declined by one iota.

You might say CNBC reflects Americans’ gung-ho attitude to business – and most British viewers would probably regard it as a freak show – but then it also reflects Americans’ attitude to pretty much everything. The US is a country where you can spend hours watching live coverage of bass-fishing and high-school lacrosse, all presented with the same ecstatic fervour that CNBC brings to the inversion of the yield curve.

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