Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Apprentice Finale - And Aftershock

It isn't often that the word "aftershock" is really appropriate when talking about a television show, and particularly a reality show, but I think you can argue that the decision of one player at the end of the fourth season finale of The Apprentice set off something of a firestorm. Or an aftershock.

At the start of the two part Apprentice finale Donald Trump had narrowed the field of 18 candidates to two, Randal Pinkett from Somerset New Jersey and Rebecca Jarvis from Chicago. As usual in the show, the final task for each was to coordinate a charity event, with a staff made up of three previously fired candidates each. In this case each potential Apprentice had to deal with a corporate sponsor. Randal was put in charge of a celebrity softball game for the charity Autism Speaks with Outback Steak House as corporate sponsor, while Rebecca was given a comedy event for the Elizabeth Glazer Pediatric Aids Foundation with Yahoo! as corporate sponsor. Both Randal and his group and Rebecca and her group encountered problems. In Rebecca's case the problems were twofold. The original host for the comedy event was supposed to be former Saturday Night Live cast member Joe Piscopo, however soon after a meeting with two of Rebecca's employees, Piscopo pulled out claiming resistance from "the union". (Since there isn't a "comedian's union" I suspect the resistance may have come from either AFTRA or Actor's Equity concerning payment from the producers of The Apprentice, but I haven't seen any specific union claim.) She responded by contacting various comedy clubs and finding a replacement MC for the event. A bigger problem was staunch resistance on the part of Yahoo! to attempts at direct fundraising during the event. Randal found similar resistance from Outback Steak House but after hearing details about Autism from the representative of Autism Speaks he and his team were able to persuade the company to give in on that point. A bigger problem for Randal was the weather - on the day that he developed his plans for the event the weather was excellent but the day of the event had heavy rain and the groundskeeper at Brooklyn's Key Span Park where the softball game was to be held felt that even if it stopped raining the field wouldn't be ready in time for the game. Randal was forced to improvise a "Plan B" in a matter of hours.

The events went off with some difficulty. Randal decided to crowd the various celebrities and VIP guests into the dressing room for the Brooklyn Cyclones baseball team and proceed with a planned auction sale there with proceeds going to Autism Speaks, with bins for personal donations also provided. In his opening remarks Randal gave a spirited explanation of the need to donate to the charity, however during the course of the event the celebrities - who were invited to participate in the softball game - were spread throughout the room rather than placed in a position where they'd be visible to the crowd. Worse, by the time that Donald Trump arrived for the event it had stopped raining and he wondered aloud whether the game could have been held as planned. (In Randal's defense, in such matters one should usually defer to the opinion of the experts, in this case the stadium groundskeeper.) Still Randal managed to raise $11,000 for Autism Speaks.

As for Rebecca, she seemed to have totally caved in to Yahoo!'s demands. The whole place was resplendent in purple and white (the Yahoo! colours) including the drinks - Yahootinis and drinks with purple blinking ice cubes. The only visible mention of the Elizabeth Glazer Pediatric Aids Foundation was one rather small banner placed above the bar, and while Glaser's son did speak to the crowd at the start of the comedy performances, and the MC did from time to time mention the group, there was no way to directly contribute. Gift bags were given to the attendees at the end of the event which included a brochure and a donation form but no money was raised directly from the event. At the live "board room" in the second hour of the show, an executive from Yahoo! tried to make up for this by donating $50,000 each to Autism Speaks and the Elizabeth Glazer Pediatric Aids Foundation - the executive who told Rebecca that they didn't want direct fundraising at "their" event was seated beside him looking somewhat shame faced.

The final boardroom, broadcast live found Trump faced with the choice between two of the best candidates he's ever had. Randal's education (five degrees from Rutgers, MIT, and Oxford - where he was a Rhodes Scholar), business acumen and leadership skills were up against the younger Rebecca, a financial journalist who had attended the University of Chicago and as a teen had founded her own charity which raised over $750,000 and had involved both Bill Clinton and Colin Powell. For this she had been named in 2000 as one of Teen People's "20 Teens Who Will Change the World". Still things came down to performance both in the final task and long term. Randal questioned Rebecca's youth and lack of practical experience in the world of business while touting his own success as an entrepreneur and his greater success as a team leader during the interview process. Neither George or Caroline was particularly kind to either candidate's plan. Caroline in particular was unimpressed with Randal not having a well considered Plan B in the event of rain or checking with the weather service regularly to be sure that the softball game could go ahead, while George wondered why Randal didn't make sure that the celebrities in attendance weren't more prominently on display. The George's point has somewhat less merit than Caroline's although there was probably a better way to make use of the celebrities in the auction situation. The big criticism went to Rebecca for losing sight of the fact that her client wasn't Yahoo! but the Elizabeth Glazer Pediatric Aids Foundation.(It should be noted here that the Elizabeth Glazer Pediatric Aids Foundation is a particular favourite charity of Mark Burnett's production company - proceeds from the auction of Survivor props from each season goes to the Foundation as do proceeds from auctions of Apprentice memorabilia.) In the end it came down to Donald Trump's own decision. He chose Randal.

And then he asked the question excited the aftershock. I don't think that anyone either present at Lincoln Center or in the TV audience would disagree that Randal was deserving of being selected as Trump's Apprentice, even though there was a general sense that if Rebecca were selected it wouldn't be a bad choice either. Certainly the final two this season were far superior to either of the Season Three candidates Tana or Kendra, and perhaps the best final two of any season of the show. So maybe it shouldn't have come as a big surprise when Donald Trump asked Randal if Rebecca should also be hired. And then Randal surrendered all the considerable good will he had won. With Felisha and Alla both shaking their heads so hard that you could probably hear them rattling, Randal said ''No, Mr. Trump. It's not called The Apprenti. There should only be one.'' There were boos from the audience at Lincoln Center but even greater were the comments at various online locations. Before TVSquad shut down their comments for maintenance, they received 116 comments most of which could be summed up with the statement "Randal is a jerk." At The Donald's Trump University blog there were 276 comments the last time I checked, the essence of which, in virtually every case was "Randal is a jerk and you should hire Rebecca anyway Mr. Trump."

As for me, I'm not sure. If Trump had wanted to hire both he could have. If he felt that it was for the best for his organization he should have, and probably still should. More to the point he shouldn't have asked a newly hired employee whether he should hire her unless it was a case of having her work for him as an assistant or as part of his team. At the same time however, Randal is probably obliged to tell his employer whether he thinks the company would be better off if he were to hire Rebecca. And there hangs the real seed of any controversy. The reasons expressed by Randal are personal rather than business related, related to his interests and the name of the show, The Apprentice. He won; he is The Apprentice but in saying that he is going against the final line of the show's intro - "It's not personal, it's only business." By not offering a sound business reason for not hiring Rebecca, he has put the personal ahead of the business, and if that doesn't make him the things that people have been calling him, perhaps it does make him less sound as a businessman, which after all is what Trump is hiring.

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