1 Commentary From Troubleshooter to The Apprentice: the changing face of business on British television Raymond Boyle CENTRE FOR CULTURAL POLICY RESEARCH, UNIVERSITY OF GLASGOW, UK This commentary seeks to open up a discussion around how British factual television has represented the world of business and finance over the last decade or so. It investigates the ways that factual television representations of the financial and business environment have changed and in so doing begins to identify the key drivers of this process. As the traditional boundaries between news and current affairs, drama and documentary have blurred and new formats emerged, this research begins to capture how British television has responded to these shifts through its engagement with the world of work, business and finance. Previous research in this area has tended to focus on the specific realm of television news journalism and the reporting of industrial and economic issues (Gavin, 2000; Jensen, 1987; Philo, 1995; Richardson, 1998), while more recently attention has been centred on the BBC and the issue of journalistic impartiality in its coverage of business (Svennevig, 2007). While such concerns naturally inform this research, attention here is on the ideas and discourses created beyond the television news arena and specifically on the role that factual entertainment television formats play in representing business on television. Given the centrality of the BBC in this process, it is worth briefly reflecting on recent attempts to change the institutional climate within that organization regarding its coverage of the world of business. The BBC and business coverage When Greg Dyke became Director-general of the BBC in early 2000 he recognized that broader shifts in the way that business and financial issues were being reported in the print media was not being reflected in the BBC s journalism and its broader coverage. He argued that: the BBC under my leadership will take business more seriously than we have done before. I am doing so because it is important, it matters more than ever before. Globalization has inevitably made national politics less important and the world of Media, Culture & Society 2008 SAGE Publications (Los Angeles, London, New Delhi and Singapore), Vol. 30(3): [ISSN: DOI: / ]
2 416 Media, Culture & Society 30(3) international business more so. We need to reflect that in our reporting and our programmes. (Dyke, 2000) As part of a wider commitment to culture change in the BBC (Dyke, 2004) he recruited then Sunday Business editor Jeff Randall as the BBC s first Business as distinct from Economics Editor and set about bringing more business-related stories to air. Randall himself argues that: The BBC had to recruit from outside, with a brief to increase the quality and the quantity of business broadcasting while also addressing attitudinal change in the Corporation. It simply followed a consumerist line, prices up bad, profits up bad with no attempt to understand the world through the eyes of business. The BBC was culturally and structurally biased against business. It never had a Business Editor and it kidded itself that it did business because it had an Economics Editor. I had to convince people there that business sits on the crossroads of commerce and finance, and that economics sits on the crossroads of politics and the economy. (Interview with author, 11 January 2007) The BBC Economics Editor Evan Davis agrees that the BBC had been a bit onedimensional in its coverage of business up until this point, but also suggests that while newspapers had more business coverage this was often located in the business sections of the newspaper, which were often passed over by the average reader. He notes that: More than anything else I think the dot.com boom changed popular media attitudes to business and got business into The Sun and the Daily Mirror and onto television news. What television was a bit late in doing was broadening this coverage into other areas. (Interview with author, 12 January 2007) There is little doubt that the dot.com boom and the extensive media coverage given to a number of entrepreneurs helped change the perceptions of entrepreneurship specifically among younger people (Cassidy, 2002; Cellan-Jones, 2001). The mixture of cutting-edge technology, the possibility of starting a company/business literally from your own home, prominent media and even celebrity profile for entrepreneurs, and the seemingly endless opportunities to make money very quickly became a potent mix for a generation who no longer expected to be in one job for life (Boyle and Magor, 2008). BBC and the business documentary tradition While the internal shifts in the BBC s focus on business were largely centred on journalism, other changes in commissioning policy were moving business issues more fundamentally within the orbit of entertainment television and challenging the Corporation s documentary tradition of business programming. Wider shifts in the television ecology have of course always shaped the range of representations of the business world being offered to viewers. While there had been a long tradition of documentary approaches to the world of work, business and commerce, by the 1980s more innovative treatments were being developed to engage the viewer (Corner, 2002). The observational or fly on the wall documentary strand was mobilized to offer a more intimate, and often confrontational view of the business workplace. Although piloted in 1987, the first series of the ground-breaking Troubleshooter was broadcast in 1989 on BBC2, and had the audience following industrialist and former Chairman of ICI, Sir John Harvey-Jones as he visited various struggling businesses, offering an analysis of why things were failing, as well as providing the solutions
3 Boyle, From Troubleshooter to The Apprentice 417 required to turn the ailing ventures around. Inevitably his advice would be that the business had to change or die. In 1990 the second series won a Bafta special award for originality. In 2002 Troubleshooter Back in Business saw Harvey-Jones returning to examine the state of the companies he had visited in the earlier programmes. Television producer Michele Kurland worked for 12 years in the BBC Business Unit and on Troubleshooter. She argues that it was an important programme because: before Troubleshooter business was something that featured on news and current affairs programmes. Business people were either dry boring people in suits, or shifty characters up to no good. Sir John Harvey-Jones was a rare individual; a high-powered industry figure who could make business accessible. There was a great mystery about business. Sir John went into businesses and humanized it, by focusing on the people behind the business, and that series looked at ordinary people. Obviously in television you always pick out good characters, but it opened up a world, of ordinary people, with ordinary stresses and strains, trying to run a business. (Interview with author, 12 January 2007) A later version of this type of programme I ll Show Them Who s Boss (BBC 2, ), featured Sir Gerry Robinson in a similar role, with the twist being that the businesses involved all tended to be family run, with the inevitable focus on sibling rivalry and the inter-generational strife that often proved to be at the core of the problem facing the business. This role was revived in a three-part BBC and Open University series Can Gerry Robinson Fix the NHS? broadcast in 2007, when over a period of six months he investigated and attempted to find solutions to the problems besetting a particular hospital as it tried to reduce waiting lists for operations. The key to the success of these programmes was their ability to marry more traditional dramatic concerns with the realm of programmes about business. Crucial in this was a central character with whom the audience could engage, but also a dramatic structure that allowed the narrative to develop at some pace, introducing the audience to a cast of new characters each week. In many of the Troubleshooter programmes and the later Robinson series the crucial element was the centrality of family relationships being put under strain within a business context. Each episode introduced some form of business crisis or moment of chaos, and as viewers we watched to see if these would be resolved by the intervention of the business guru. Inevitably, the business crisis was often a form of displaced family tension or tragedy, and particularly in the I ll Show Them Who s Boss series, Robinson took on the persona not so much of a business expert, but rather more as a sort of family priest, finding different members of the family confiding (almost confessing) their anxieties and frustrations, which often involved fundamental breakdowns in communication across generations or among siblings. The world of business was seen as an extension of the rivalries, tensions and tragedies that often run through family histories and narratives something of course used to great dramatic effect in the long-running ( ) television soap opera Dallas and it was this human and emotional element that helped connect these stories with the television audience. The success of Troubleshooter and its close association with producer Robert Thirkell resulted in him being charged with building a raft of programmes around the BBC Business Unit in the mid-1990s and by 2000 he became Creative Director of the Unit. Thirkell is widely regarded in industry circles as the key figure in shaping the popularity of the business documentary, with his ability to both focus on narrative and storytelling, and also to develop formats that enabled aspects of the business world to be exposed to a wider audience through popular television. Danny Cohen, then Head of Factual Television at Channel 4 and currently Head of BBC3 argues that:
4 418 Media, Culture & Society 30(3) So many things in television production are around individual talent as much as responding to sociological change. So a person in a position of power can change and shape programming. At the BBC Robert Thirkell had a dynamic and skilful way of film-making that changed business on television. (Interview with author, 7 March 2007) The programme formats developed by Thirkell and his team included Back to the Floor ( ), which was initially rejected by BBC Current Affairs on the grounds that they thought no one would be interested in a format which had a boss of a business spending a week back on the shopfloor. It was then made by the Business Unit and ran for four series on BBC2; Trouble at the Top ( ) ran for eight series and followed a number of bosses as they grappled with a range of businesses and organizations from Marks & Spencer through to Wandsworth prison, while Blood on the Carpet ( ) examined a number of corporate business battles between key business individuals. At the heart of all these programmes was the central human character engaged in various struggles involving business enterprises. These were documentaries carefully structured for dramatic impact, revolving around key characters within a developed narrative context. In other words, they all told an essentially human story of either tragedy or, often, triumph, and the real strength was to give the previously rather dry world of business documentaries a human interest makeover. However it would be the rise of the docu-soap (or the return of the long-form documentary serial as some television executives preferred to call them) in the 1990s that would offer a new way for broadcasters to access and represent the business environment. Business representations and docu-soaps These serials with returning characters focused on a particular workplace or company and followed the experiences of specific individuals as they dealt with the everyday trails and tribulations associated with being, for example, a Unijet holiday rep in the Mediterranean (Holiday Reps, 1997, BBC1); working at one of the world s largest airports, Heathrow (Airport, 1996, BBC1); managing and running a major hotel in Liverpool (Hotel, 1997, BBC1) and working for the low-cost airline EasyJet (Airline, 1999 present, ITV). A combination of new light-weight technology and a focus on real events and often ordinary people helped to drive the blurring of boundaries between traditional notions of documentary and fictional drama (Corner, 2004). As Hill notes, the origins of this strand of television output were initially economically driven and she suggests that they: came at a time when networks were looking for a quick fix solution to economic problems within the cultural industries. Increased costs in the production of drama, sitcom and comedy ensured unscripted, popular factual programming became a viable economic option during the 1990s. (2005: 39) There were however also elements of continuity with previous BBC documentary serials such as Sailor (1976), which followed life on board HMS Ark Royal over ten episodes and the eight-part Strangeways (1980), which took viewers behind the scenes of one of Britain s most notorious prisons. These documentaries were what the senior BBC executive Will Wyatt (2003: 81) has called the forerunners of the 1990s docu-soaps. It would be this format, with its central concern with character and narrative development and subsequent celebrity status for the programme s stars that would allow a sustained engagement between factual television and the world of work
5 Boyle, From Troubleshooter to The Apprentice 419 and business over the coming years. Georgina Born in her study of the BBC suggests that during this time: The concept of the story became ubiquitous among producers to the point of obsession: getting the story right and finding strong characters were prime concerns. (2004: 431) For those who had worked in observational documentaries there was a recognition that wider movements in television trends and audience taste and expectations were altering the parameters within which factual business television was operating. The rise of the business entertainment format For those working within television, such as producers like Michele Kurland, the arrival of the digital broadcasting environment now meant that: people have so much choice on television that the pressure is on to make the entertainment bigger. That is the changing nature of television. The BBC needs a young audience (25 35) and as soon as they get bored, they switch channels, so you need a narrative that keeps them interested and some form of jeopardy as well. But now there is something else and it started with the Weakest Link, you need humiliation to some extent, to see people suffer. (Interview with author, 12 January 2007) Narrative, character and an element of jeopardy (either job losses or business failure), and the ability to humanize the world of business and work, had all been key ingredients of the programmes that had successfully developed since the 1980s. However, by the late 1990s the broader television ecology was shifting and moving away from the traditional observational documentary, through the docu-soap into what, by the turn of the century, was being labelled reality television, the latter adding elements of the game show genre into the mix, producing a new generation of business entertainment programmes. With a perception that a more entrepreneurial culture existed among its younger audience and an increasingly fragmented television marketplace, the BBC began to explore synergizing some of the new hybrid formats proving popular with audiences. The advent of a more business-friendly Director-General at the BBC, supported by a former Goldman Sachs economist Gavyn Davies as Chairman, encouraged the BBC to take business-related content seriously across the range of its output. Jane Root, Controller of BBC2 from 1999 to 2004 had been charged with creating a distinct identity for the channel in the new millennium. Significantly, Root broke with tradition by arguing that, in the emerging multi-channel digital television landscape, BBC2 was not actually a minority channel and needed to rid itself of that identity. In an interview she gave in May 2003 she argued: In America, the percentage share of audience we ve [BBC2] got would make us one of the biggest channels, and on some nights, the biggest channel. In Britain we re the third biggest channel. It used to be that in Britain, a small channel was BBC2, whereas these days, a small channel is Men & Motors or BidUpTV or something that gets 500 people watching. (Kirk, 2004) As part of the strategy to re-position BBC2 in a multi-channel environment Root identified the role and impact of enterprise and entrepreneurship on British life as something she wanted reflected in the channel s ouput.
6 420 Media, Culture & Society 30(3) She told Jeff Randall, the then BBC Business Editor that enterprise was going to be one of the main issues in society going forward over the next ten years (interview with author, 11 January 2007). One of the areas she got Randall directly involved with was recruiting businessman Sir Alan Sugar for a British version of the NBC hit The Apprentice. Under Root the brand identity of the channel was to be built around programmes that were entertaining but also had an educational dimension, a strategy that began to reformulate what public service broadcasting would look like in a digital age. Root said that: I think that education has changed in what it means. These days television isn t a very good place for getting your facts, because you can get facts anyway. Television is a medium that is primarily good at communicating emotion, and what s interesting is to link emotion to ideas. My favourite programmes on BBC2 are always emotion with ideas. (Kirk, 2004) A combination of trying to reach a younger audience through new and hybrid formats, and a growing recognition that lifestyle changes and generational attitudes towards money and risk were changing in society all helped fuel programmes such as Living the Dream (BBC2, ). This programme looked at people who gave up safe jobs to pursue a business dream and the stresses and strains that running such an enterprise put on family and friends. By 2000 Channel 4 had noted the success of a number of BBC business-related programmes and began commissioning a range of factual programmes that had business as the content theme and would dominate the schedules for the rest of the decade (Risking it All, Channel 4, 2004 present; Ramsay s Kitchen Nightmares, 2004 present; Property Ladder, 2004 present; Make Me a Million, 2005 present). A programme such as Channel 4 s Ramsay s Kitchen Nightmares (2004 present) shows both how representations of business on television have changed and yet also remain shaped by televisual history. In a highly competitive digital television age fixated with finding new entertainment formats and using celebrity to sell programmes, here is an update of the old Troubleshooter model (Ramsay has even repeated on screen the Sir John Harvey-Jones adage that businesses need to change or die ). Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay (and star of a number of television shows in the UK and the US) goes into a range of restaurants and advises them on how to help pull around failing businesses. It has conflict, passion, swearing, great human stories and no little insight into the challenges of making a business work in the catering sector. It won a Bafta in 2005 and was nominated for an international Emmy in 2006, with Ramsay, an award-winning chef who has used the celebrity-driven media to forge his own brand identity, at its centre as a more aggressive troubleshooter for a more abrasive television age (it is not uncommon to have the F swear word used up to 50 times in any one show). BBC television executive Danny Cohen recognizes that, in terms of television s history, the arrival of particular formats simply allows the re-telling of universal stories for a new audience. He suggests that: there was a period of formatted factual television that emerged, such as WifeSwap, Supernanny and Faking It, and then you ask what kind of areas of life can you apply to that format and business was a good one. So The Apprentice or Jamie s Chef are programmes dealing with those business issues within a formatted context. And that is as much to do with current programme-making styles rather than business ideas. Ramsay s Kitchen Nightmare s is a programme that you can trace back to the Troubleshooter programme. There has been a long history of business programmes. The themes often keep coming around, presented for different audiences and using different programme-making styles. (Interview with author, 7 March 2007)
7 Boyle, From Troubleshooter to The Apprentice 421 And new programmes with a business theme continue to appear across British television. In 2007 we had Sky Television s Badger or Bust, which has the former Apprentice runner-up trying to turn around businesses in trouble and Mary Queen of Shops (BBC2), which followed retail brand consultant Mary Portas efforts to transform ailing fashion boutique shops as the troubleshooter television format is merged with the makeover format of the 1990s. Thus the drives of a transforming television industry are vital in re-shaping how specific areas of the business environment find themselves being drawn into television. To connect with the audience the conventions of the format or the genre were obviously important, but so too is a growing interest in and a changing attitude towards the world of work among the audience. The format: The Apprentice One of the most popular and critically acclaimed of these programmes has been the British version of The Apprentice. Created in the US by NBC and first broadcast in 2004, the American show had entrepreneur Donald Trump setting out a 12-week job interview programme to recruit an apprentice to work for him in a $250,000 a year job. The contestants from various business backgrounds compete each week to complete business tasks in their teams, with one member of the losing team being eliminated each week and being told by Trump, in what became the defining catchphrase of the series, You re fired. The extent to which this quickly became a landmark television programme is clear from the fact that, within two years it would enjoy five series on American television the first series finishing its run with an audience of 27.6 million and the format would be adapted and broadcast in 17 countries. The BBC set about reframing the programme as a business education format, while emphasizing its entertainment value. Indeed, the BBC went further by presenting the programme as an example of innovative, risk-taking, popular public service broadcasting that, in the digital age, allowed content to be delivered across a range of media platforms. From the outset Sir Alan Sugar, stepping into the Trump role, was keen to distance himself from the game show element. For Sir Alan Sugar it was about allowing viewers to get a sense of some of the range of challenges faced by those involved across the business spectrum, and this more educational theme was developed in the book that accompanied the series (Sugar, 2006). First and foremost, however, the BBC s The Apprentice is a well-paced, slickly edited, beautifully shot piece of television. It uses incidental music to build atmosphere and tension, and at its core it is a programme about conflict and resolution, with heroes and villains. Each week, as someone is fired from the programme following the completion of a business task, we reach an interim climax; however this is a 12- week open-ended narrative that builds to reveal the winner: the apprentice who secures the 100k a year job with Sir Alan Sugar. From its opening titles of sweeping aerial shots of London s Canary Wharf skyscrapers and the buildings of the City, the programme is offering a dramatic and dynamic vision of business and enterprise in the Britain of the 21st century. However, the dramatic constructions of the reality television genre are of course evident in the series. So the boardroom where much of the drama takes place has been specially constructed for the programme. The head office of Sir Alan Sugar s company is not located in the plate-glass high-rise buildings of Canary Wharf, but rather, as journalist Janice Turner notes, in a cheerless Brentwood, in a nondescript Seventies office block, rather more David Brent than Donald Trump (2007).
8 422 Media, Culture & Society 30(3) Series one of The Apprentice was broadcast early in 2005 on BBC2 and averaged 2.5 million (11% audience share); by series two, a year later, this had risen to 4.4 million (19%), and when the third series was broadcast in 2007 it had been moved to the mainstream BBC1 and it captured an average audience of 7 million (28%) with two further series being commissioned. It won a television Bafta award in 2006 for best television feature and helped encourage the development of other formats, such as the BBC2 Dragons Den (2005 present), fronted by the BBC s Economics Editor Evan Davis. Set in a bleak spartan warehouse this programme sees potential business people pitch to a number of wealthy business entrepreneurs (the Dragons), seeking investment in their company, invention or business idea. The Dragons are investing their own money and the drama comes from seeing who buckles under pressure and who, if any, can walk out of the den having secured the full amount of their investment. Significantly, the programme is produced by BBC Entertainment and is a UK version of a Japanese television format. Programmes such as The Apprentice or Dragons Den represent the merging of entertainment formats with reality material drawn from the world of business and commerce. They offer a partial representation of the complex and diverse world of work. Crucially, however, for an organization such as the BBC, these formats attract a younger audience demographic to business-related programmes than can be found following more traditional current affairs business programmes. The Dragons Den BBC2 audience in 2005 saw 61 percent under 55, with 10 percent aged between 16 34, a significantly higher proportion than is usual for an 8 p.m. slot. The Corporation argues that these types of shows illuminate the world of business and work, and bring aspects of this culture to a wider, younger audience. In so doing they are both entertaining and producing water cooler television in an age where audience fragmentation means that such programmes are fewer in number and harder to commission. Are these programmes accurate indicators of British cultural attitudes in the 21st century? They do offer a representation of the world of work characterized by an increasing culturally and racially mixed workforce, with a changing attitude to entrepreneurship and the role of business in British society. For Michele Kurland programmes like The Apprentice and Dragons Den, while operating within the institutional and structural constraints of television, do in fact capture some of the changes that have taken place in work culture over the last decade or so. She argues that: the early [BBC documentary] programmes were about teamwork, Dragons Den and The Apprentice are about sharp elbows; it s not really about teamwork, it s more ruthless with people competing with each other. It reflects that the workplace and the working world has changed; people don t stay with the one company for decades as was the case in say Troubleshooter; with Dragons Den and The Apprentice it is more ruthless environment. (Interview with author, 11 January 2007) Conclusion: formatted business Television producer Robert Thirkell has argued that the rise of reality television formats that use business as their content are basically entertainment vehicles rather than business programmes. He continues: In my view now is the time to be counter-intuitive and make programmes about real businesses that the public care about. How does McDonald s work? Is the Tescoisation of Britain right, and can we fight back? Now is a big opportunity for business programmes, exactly because there aren t many real business programmes
9 Boyle, From Troubleshooter to The Apprentice 423 on TV. What is not being fed sufficiently is the thirst for real content about the real world. Many worthwhile documentaries may be being squeezed out of the schedules. But in my view now is the very time to back the genre. (Thirkell, 2006) The news and current affairs spaces on television where business issues are examined and scrutinized are limited; however issues relating to business have seeped out into other areas of television, meaning that representations of a brash affluent, entrepreneurial Britain, full of risk takers, can often be found across the British television schedules from educational schools output to prime-time. Yet in 2007, Britain has 12 million people living on or below the poverty line, with unemployment standing at almost 1.7 million, the highest since 2000, and personal debt at record levels (Elliott and Atkinson, 2007: 61 5). This is a Britain largely absent from the plethora of lifestyle, makeover and leisure programmes that cram the television schedules, which often offer a metropolitan vision of a booming, propertyobsessed and affluent country. It is a partial range of representations that largely ignores what is happening round the corner, down the street or in a less salubrious part of town (unless, of course, it is up and coming). The number of programmes across a range of factual television genres that deal with the arena of business, entrepreneurship and finance has expanded over the last decade or so. Some, such as those focused on professions and occupations, have opened up working lives to the television audience, others implicitly encourage us to become property developers, entrepreneurs and managed risk-takers, with the promise of wealth (and sometimes fame) for those who embark on successful ventures. What impact do these programmes have on shaping the climate of opinion in Britain with regard to notions of entrepreneurship and the role of the entrepreneur in society? How partial is the range of representations these programmes offer? There remains a challenge for television if it is to grapple with, and shine a light on, the increasingly complex ways in which largely hidden and seemingly incomprehensible financial and economic structures continue to shape the world of commerce and influence our everyday lives and cultural tastes and habits. The difficulty for those working in the current digital broadcasting climate remains how to address this economic and cultural remit through genres or formats that are able to entertain as well as enlighten an increasingly distracted viewing public. Acknowledgements I would like to thank the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland and the Wincott Foundation for their support in this project, and all those who gave generously of their time to speak on and off the record. Thanks are also due to John Corner and Philip Schlesinger for their helpful comments on an earlier draft. References Born, G. (2004) Uncertain Vision: Birt, Dyke and the Reinvention of the BBC. London: Secker and Warburg. Boyle, R. and M. Magor (2008) A Nation of Entrepreneurs? Television, Social Change and the Rise of the Entrepreneur, International Journal of Media and Cultural Politics. Cassidy, J. (2002) Dot.con: The Greatest Story Ever Sold. London: Allen Lane.
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