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5th December 2016

Alan Sugar: You’re Fired

The Apprentice has turned stale and is unreflective of a healthy business climate; it should be axed

Over the years, watching the BBC’s The Apprentice on a Wednesday (then Thursday) evening at 9pm became like a ritual for a lot of the nation: the arguments, tantrums and fallings out. Alan Sugar’s ‘banter’ in the boardroom, talking about the latest episode the following day with friends at school, family, or work colleagues.

However, the show has run out of steam. Not only is it laughable to suggest the tasks are somehow representative of real-life business situations but the show is also no longer that entertaining. This year’s crop of candidates are (respectfully) a fairly average bunch. There are no big characters: no one to strongly love or hate. And none of them have particularly shone out business-wise either. Hence, now is the perfect time for the BBC to axe The Apprentice.

One serious limitation to the show’s formatting is the way success is defined. More or less every week, the team that ‘wins’ is the one that makes the most profit over a day or so. However, one team may have achieved a much higher customer satisfaction. Thus, they may have been more likely to make a higher profit over the medium to long term from repeat sales and good reputation. Luck may have also played a role in a team’s victory. Customers may have just so happened to be in a good mood on that particular day and thus been more willing to part with their cash. Alternatively, factors such as weather and traffic may have indirectly affected sales.

Of course, assessing the impact of these external factors is difficult given that economies are complex with their webs of internal and external feedback loops. But that doesn’t mean to say that the potential impact of these factors should be overlooked. Over the long-term, the extent of the impact of luck and external factors would diminish, allowing you to better assess whether or not a product or service is a top-seller. Yet these factors can hugely affect sales figures over a day or two. The Apprentice defines success merely in terms of short-term profit, regardless of the sustainability of the business model.

In addition, there is more to life than money and profit. Absolutely, we need money to maintain a standard of living: buying food, shelter, clothing etc. But beyond a certain point, the extent to which money ‘buys’ us happiness arguably diminishes. Money is needed to pay for nice meals out, buy Christmas presents and fund summer holidays. But in these cases, it is not the money itself that makes people happy. Money gives individuals the opportunity to foster happiness, but the happiness itself derives from the social element attached to these activities.

For example, the joy of eating at a restaurant is is generated by being with friends or family, or from the pleasure received from good food. Equally, in terms of Christmas gifts, happiness derives from buying a family member or friend something you know they’ll love; knowing you’ve done something to make someone else happy in turn makes you happy. In terms of holidays, happiness again derives not from money itself but from building memories with family and friends. Money acts a facilitator in the generation of happiness, but this should not be confused with causality.

Furthermore, the idea that the tasks are somehow representative of real life business situations is laughable. Randomly walking into a bakery in East London and asking for a 10% discount on a large order of rainbow doughnuts does not demonstrate ‘negotiation skills’. Nor does selling a few packet of sweets at a beach somehow demonstrate great sales skills. I mean, seriously, what must people think when they see camera crew, people running around frantically in suits (often engaged in a heated telephone arguments) and Karren Brady standing nearby with a notepad shaking her head? They must know The Apprentice is being filmed. So yes, of course they’re going to buy a packet of sweets for £3 for a chance to be on the telly!

The Apprentice is emblematic of neoliberal capitalism. In dog-eat-dog style, candidates fight for a £250,000 investment from Lord Sugar. The message every week is the same: profit, profit, profit. But if we’ve learnt anything from Trump’s surprise victory in the US and Brexit at home, its that the ‘Washington Consensus’ policies of which The Apprentice implicitly endorses are broken: casino capitalism is dying. And not only does the show promote a broken ideology, it is becoming boring too. So it’s time the BBC called Lord Sugar into the boardroom, looked him straight in the eye, pointed and said: Thanks for everything Alan but, regretfully, you’re fired.

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