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A Good Idea Gone to Seed

By Kent Lewis

Two years ago, I watched my first episode of The Apprentice, featuring Donald Trump’s hair. Like many Americans, I find Trump to be crass, cheesy and have bad taste in almost everything (with the exception of his current wife). On the other hand, I can’t help but respect his business prowess, especially being able to maintain composure through financial ups and downs. Beyond Trump’s star power, I figured the show was going to be entertaining, because it’s produced by Survivor wonder-producer, Mark Burnett. I was right on, at least for the first two seasons.

The show’s premise is simple and elegant, as far as reality shows are concerned: everyone wants to be rich and famous. Trump is rich and successful. What better way to become rich and famous yourself than to work for Trump? The Apprentice offers 18 contestants an opportunity to become a high-paid, high-profile Trump employee for one year. The contestants compete, initially as two teams, where one person is voted off the show each week after a specific task is completed. The winning team’s project manager is exempt from the next task, while the losing team’s project manager has to bring two teammates into the boardroom, one of which will be fired by Trump.

While the premise is relatively simple, what makes the show interesting is the chemistry. In Survivor-formulaic style, Apprentice contestants are housed in the same penthouse apartment and spend a majority of their days together (eating, sleeping, cheating, etc.). Furthermore, the tasks are often high-pressure challenges that involve a quick turnaround. The atmosphere is a virtual breeding ground for friction, stress and mental breakdown. The highlight of every show is the boardroom, as it offers an opportunity for the losing team to justify their value to Trump and get feedback from George and Caroline, Trump’s trusted cronies.

The first season followed this basic formula successfully. The candidates had diverse educational, economic and cultural backgrounds. The tasks seemed relevant, educational and entertaining. Trump and his two minions voted off the least-qualified candidates based on poor performance and character traits. In the end, arguably most qualified candidate was the winner. Ratings soared the first two seasons, validating the formula.

Now most of the way through the third season, it’s becoming clear that things are falling apart. Fine-tuning a show to increase ratings is an inevitable fact. Unfortunately, I think the fateful combination of a shrewd, narcissistic businessman with a ratings-optimizing producer has proven to be too much for fickle viewers like myself. The show is now about product and personality, not performance.

The shift from season one to season three may be subtle to most, but not to me. The first major change involves the candidates: this season they pitted diverse backgrounds against each other from the start (“Book Smarts vs. Street Smarts”). Competition is human nature, but this season’s tasks are designed specifically to encourage teammates to question and criticize each other, especially in Trump’s presence. The tasks take a back seat to the interpersonal relationship, offering more of a venue for product placement and sponsorship than a demonstration of business acumen or an educational opportunity for viewers.

The losing team is encouraged to play the blame game once they’re in the board room (“In your opinion, who’s fault is this?”). Those that accept responsibility are usually fired. The contestants that convincingly pawn off responsibility to others are able to stay. Candidates’ track records generally don’t mean as much to Trump as their ability to attack and defend while in the boardroom. Trump also typically makes the firing decisions based on his gut or seemingly random criteria (an off-handed comment or minor decision) rather than overall skills, potential and performance.

I believe The Apprentice and Trump himself are sending all the wrong messages to young professionals regarding success. If I were to evaluate professional success based on the show, I would come to the following conclusions:

Fighting with and disrespecting your coworkers is acceptable behavior.
You should never worry about accepting responsibility for your actions, especially if you can blame someone else.
The task is never as important as the people performing it.
As long as you’re a convincing liar and do well in high-pressure situations, you’ll do very well.
Your performance is measured on your most recent task, combined with your ability to defend your actions and deflect blame onto others.

So what does the future hold for The Apprentice? While I’m sure the ratings are still up (even though I no longer watch it religiously), I predict the show will make further radical changes to stay competitive in today’s reality TV market. For starters, the new contestants will be divided by race, gender preference or religious affiliation. The task will be based solely on the highest advertising bidder (i.e., introduce a two-sided toilet paper for Charmin). The boardroom will be the focal point of the show, taking up nearly 75 percent of the airtime. Other Apprentice spin-offs (beyond Martha Stewart) will include Michael Jackson, Dick Cheney and Osama bin Laden. Must-see TV indeed.

 

 

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