TV executives are often accused of flogging dead horses to fill the schedules, but the fact is, you seldom hear a dead horse complain. And so, with The Great British Bake-Off well and truly baked for another year and Strictly Come Dancing safely on the dancefloor, The Apprentice returns for its late-autumn run.
Clever editing will be employed to make the parade of wannabe entrepreneurs appear confrontational, incompetent and essentially idiotic. But beneath the cheap laughs and the mockery there lies a very real danger: the creation of false expectations.
The fundamental problem with The Apprentice, Dragons’ Den and other examples of what we might call ‘entre-tainment’ is that contestants either win or lose. This gives the firm impression that there’s absolutely no middle ground between triumph and failure, between acclaim and ridicule. We’re left with a narrow window on what it means to succeed in business – and as a result, there’s a very real risk that the next generation of entrepreneurs is being set up for a fall.
Such a claim might sound alarmist, but it’s actually rooted in research. Last year I co-authored a journal article about whether these programmes are perceived as harmless fun or an accurate reflection of life as an entrepreneur. We found that students – the highly educated young, whose views of entrepreneurship are crucial to our economic future – do believe such shows can teach them something valuable about how to communicate, evaluate and negotiate.
Of course, the principal aim of ‘entre-tainment’ is to entertain; to educate is a subsidiary by-product. Accessible to the layperson and the novice, these programmes strike a chord with the masses and can make people believe entrepreneurship is something for them.
The worrying flipside is that ‘entre-tainment’ advances a deeply aspirational form of entrepreneurship. It encourages individuals to develop an inflated sense of optimism and a perilously heightened faith in their own ability. The reality, as we know, is that entrepreneurs succeed to varying degrees and failure can be the result of a number of factors, which may or may not include one’s personal talents or lack thereof.