Friday, October 14, 2005

The Apprentice: Xerox

I have a confession to make - well two really but this is the big one. I once had an erotic dream about Martha Stewart. Yes, I know but it was a really good erotic dream. She was very - how shall I put it - assertive. I sometimes like women who are assertive in that situation. This was a few years ago, but as I think of it today I have the sneaking suspicion that in real life she would be assertive in that situation as in most others. As though having gotten something between her nethers that didn't run on batteries (to steal a line from Serenity - I have a partial review of it written but it's still only partial) she's want the event to be perfect and she'd tell you exactly how to make the experience incredibly satisfying for both of you ... but especially her.

Unfortunately this hasn't happened with The Apprentice: Martha Stewart. Here's my second confession: I like The Apprentice: Martha Stewart better than I do The E-Ring the show with which it was swapped on Wednesday nights and at least as well - if not better _ as the version with Trump. The characters on The Apprentice: Martha Stewart are far more believable and I would rather that The E-Ring be crushed (deservedly) by the juggernaut that is Lost than Martha. That said, what is happening to The Apprentice: Martha Stewart was entirely predictable. In fact I predicted it back at the beginning of September after the latest attempts by the networks to launch their own "faux Trumps" on an unsuspecting world had provided a disastrous series of shows which were only watched because it was summer. The only one which was anywhere near to being successful was Hell's Kitchen on Fox and that only got ratings because it turned the format on its head by emphasizing Gordon Ramsay not as some aloof figure like Donald Trump but as someone who was down in the pit with his contestants. The trouble with The Apprentice: Martha Stewart is that after two years of watching people create show about making schmattas (The Cut), trying to become part of high society (Who Wants To Be A Hilton), or becoming American next great lawyer (The Law Firm), not to mention CBS's attempt last year to find the "next domestic diva" (this being after Martha herself was hustled off to Club Fed for insider trading), Mark Burnett and NBC believed with the fervour of a true believer that it wasn't just Donald Trump that made The Apprentice work. Well he was right and he was wrong.

There isn't a lot of difference between Martha's Apprentice and The Donald's. Each show has 16 participants in a "job interview" arranged in two teams of eight, although Martha allowed her candidates to self select their teams, with disastrous results. Martha's team split between Business people and Creative people with the probably predictable result that the business oriented team kicked creative but. Trump split his team into an all male team and an all female team after last year's Book Smarts versus Street Smarts fiasco. On The Apprentice: Martha Stewart tasks have tended to be a little more craft and cooking related - in one episode the teams made wedding cakes - but in the end everything has had a business element - the deciding factor in the cake challenge was not how well the cakes looked but how much money they brought in. To succeed in that sort of task, and indeed in just about any of the tasks that have been assigned so far in Martha Stewart's show there is a singular need to understand the market you are appealing to, something which the business oriented people have understood throughout and which the creative people have never completely grasped. And of course there has been backbiting and manipulation by players on all of the teams.

Continuing with the similarities between the two shows, while Trump meets his teams in the corporate board room Stewart deals with hers in a conference room because at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia "there are no boardrooms". A rose by any other name would still produce rosehips. Like Trump Martha has an older male and a younger female underling to serve as her eyes and ears because she of course is too busy dealing with important matters. Charles Koppelman, who is in fact Chairman of the Board of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, stands in for Donald Trump's long time associate George Ross who is Trump's top legal advisor. Taking the place of the lovely Carolyn Kepcher in Martha's organization is the lovely Alexis Stewart, Martha's daughter.

As you can see the two shows stick very close to each other in terms of content and style. There is no gross variance which sets one apart the other and indeed very few minor differences. So why does Donald's Apprentice work better than Martha's. Well beyond the fact that I'm not sure that one really does work better than the other, I think there are a couple of factors: personality and time slot. In terms of time slot, the first two episodes were up against a preview of Lost the first week and the first hour of a two hour premier of Lost the second week, after which the network panicked and in an effort to save The E-Ring swapped the two shows so that The Apprentice: Martha Stewart was up against Lost permanently. I am not convinced that, had the show remained in the original time slot it wouldn't have improved its ratings against the relatively weak comedies on ABC CBS and (eventually) Fox it's ratings would not have improved. There's another factor worth considering though and that is the question of exposure. For all that Donald Trump is a rabid publicity junkie of the "I don't care what you say as long as you spell my name right" variety he is an amateur when compared with Martha Stewart. She has to be seen - without her there is no Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia - but because of this it is possible to argue that she's more overexposed than Trump. While I won't say that people were happy when she went to jail - although there were many who were - I think the group of people who felt a sense of schadenfreude when she went away. As a result I think it is entirely plausible to question whether, if the world really needed an exact duplicate version of The Apprentice (and remember the fate of virtually all of the Apprentice imitators in the past couple of years), Martha Stewart was the right person to front it. Of course it might just be that the show's creator, Mark Burnett, and NBC simply tried to go to the well one too many times with the Apprentice concept without looking at why it works and how it could be changed. Because change was needed if only to keep the two show's distinct and in keeping with the personalities of their "stars".

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