Fired by the Donald

American TV plays its Trump card

If sex sells, how much does it add to the bottom line? When your boss pursues a foolish strategy, can you stop working and sulk? Is it ethical to sign autographs for small children if you’re not famous yet? How much would anybody pay for a cup of lemonade? And can Donald Trump, one of the world’s richest men, really not find a better hairdo? These matters, fundamental to any proper understanding of the world’s most powerful economy, have rarely occupied the attention of vast audiences at prime time. Till now.

Since January, the American network NBC has been showing a new reality show, The Apprentice, in which 16 contestants from across the US battle for a job running one of Trump’s companies, for a year, with an annual salary of $250,000. Devised by Mark Burnett, the British Army veteran who previously invented Survivor, The Apprentice has not yet been sold here. But that can only be a matter of time, because across the US it has scored terrific ratings. Already NBC has confirmed another series and Trump has secured a lucrative book deal.

This is not the first “reality” programme about business. Several years ago, the BBC created a format, Back to the Floor, in which bosses submitted to the most humbling tasks within their own organisations. Another American network has created something similar: Now Who’s Boss starts next week on the Discovery Network with the chairman of Loews hotels predictably acquiring renewed respect for co-workers as he makes beds and carries luggage. The Apprentice is less pious and more gripping.

Some 215,000 people applied to take part. Those who were chosen include both Ivy League MBA graduates and “street entrepreneurs”, glamorous types in their 20s and early 30s who were divided at once into two teams. Each week they face a new challenge: these have included selling lemonade on street corners, devising a TV commercial, running a restaurant, raising money for charity, property development. The winners get a treat, such as a tour of Trump’s hideously vulgar apartment. The losing team only gets to see his dimly lit boardroom, for interrogation before the great man fires its weakest member.

For four weeks, the men’s team gradually shriveled as the women won every contest. Taking to the street in skimpy clothes and selling lemonade at $5 a cup – with free kisses on the cheek – the women proved, as they put it themselves, that sex sells. (The men struggled to get a dollar for the same cupful.) They proved it again, shortly after, by dressing similarly to pull punters off Times Square into the restaurant they were running for the night. Phew! These girls were hot. So much so that Trump himself – whose holdings include a model agency and the Miss Universe competition – felt it necessary to warn them against relying unduly on their natural advantage.

One of the most appealing candidates was Sam Solovey, a neurotic enthusiast of whom it was said by a colleague that you could ask him the time and he would tell you how to construct a clock. Sam looked likeliest to be eliminated in the first week, and the second – but escaped each time, only to be fired in week three. Trump was evidently sorry to see him go, pronouncing that Sam would in future either bring some company to ruin or take it to heights never hitherto imagined; an assessment derived, presumably, from Sam’s frenzied efforts to sell, to bemused passers-by, a single cup of lemonade for $1,000. Despite being knocked out so early, Sam has started a new career as motivational speaker.

Others were less ambitious but equally hopeless. When Trump ordered the teams to devise TV and press ads for a friend with a jet business, that week’s team leader – bearer of a degree in advertising – opted to forego a meeting with his client in order to get on at once with shooting the commercial. “A terrible decision,” Trump pronounced at the show’s end. “You’re fired.”

As in Survivor, the knockout process is entertainingly protracted by contestants heaping blame on each other while striving to appear good team players. In one episode, Trump quizzed a team leader before one of her colleagues: “How did Heidi do?” The reply: “She did fantastic, and I have to tell you that I have not always been a fan of Heidi, I have not always thought that she was professional or had much class, or finesse.” Trump: “That is one of the worst compliments I have ever heard… No, that is the worst.”

Half way through each programme, Trump addresses to camera pithy lessons in best practice. He recently considered the widespread view that God is in the details. “It’s like, if you sell a used car and don’t wash it…! That only costs $10, and you can get another $200 for the car. I have seen guys sell a dirty car and I have thought, ‘That guy is a loser.’”

It’s not clear that this insight, even together with the documented misadventures of Trump’s would-be acolytes, would furnish sufficient material for a case study at Harvard Business School. But to this English reviewer The Apprentice has provided an unforgettable insight into harsh American business practices. Not to mention relief from the notion that “reality” TV must always comprise remote jungle and creepy-crawlies.

In a nod to another British format, The Weakest Link, each episode of The Apprentice affords a final word to the loser. A rather dull Texan showed the frank good-natured courtesy for which that state is renowned, blaming nobody and thanking Trump for the “unforgettable experience”. Most others, gratifyingly, have been embittered. “I have a higher IQ than the other contestants,” snarled the first man Trump fired, a doctor of medicine with an MBA. “Which goes to show that there is no correlation between a high IQ and selling lemonade.”

976 words. First published 5 March 04. © The Financial Times