Saturday, April 17, 2004

Trump the Shark | I hadn't anticipated latching on to NBC's Donald Trump reality show, The Apprentice, when it premiered in January, but damned if Mark Burnett didn't suck me in anyway, just as he did a few years ago with a stupid-sounding but ultimately very compelling competition among 16 strangers dropped onto a remote island and left to fend for themselves.

Fueled by the network's out-of-control promotions department, The Apprentice became a big hit, with Thursday's final episode, in which Trump hired jittery cigar salesman Bill over somnolent Harvard MBA Kwame, drawing big viewership numbers. There are sequel series planned, and the show was a true water-cooler phenomenon.

Journalists being the lazy sorts that they are, most of the coverage of the show centered unjustifiably if understandably on Trump, who's always been a better self-promoter than businessman. His casinos are on shaky financial ground, he invested poorly in wives, and he recently launched an absurd and hopefully ill-fated bid to trademark the phrase "You're fired."

But he sure makes for good TV. Right?

Well, maybe not. The thing is, after watching most of the series's episodes, I'm still not convinced that the real purpose of the show was to milk Trump's "expertise" in order to identify the most promising management hopeful among the 200,000-plus people who applied to be on. Indeed, the various competitions in which the hopefuls engaged as they vied for Trump's imprimatur did nothing more than single out successful salespeople. Whether lemonade or real estate or shitty art, week by week the contestants were asked to sell stuff. That's it. Sure, Thursday's installment had the two finalists shepherding a charity golf tournament and a Jessica Simpson concert, respectively, but event management, a tactical business endeavor, is a far cry from the kind of strategic thinking that today's corporations need to remain nimbly ahead of the curve and be successful.

Burnett's great secret, though, is that his shows aren't about business, or restaurants, or tropical island survival. They're about people and interpersonal relationships, and that's why there so freakin' much fun to watch. The anchor of The Apprentice isn't Trump; with just a modicum of media training, even a stiff such as Bill Gates could pull off a boardroom appearance. No, what grounds the show and makes people want to watch is that it stars real people -- well, as real as one can be trying to sell lemonade in front of an armada of TV cameras and scruffy guys holding boom mikes -- doing real things, with real results.

And with no candy-ass, dating-challenged, backup quarterbacks anywhere to be found.


Post a Comment

<< Home