Monday, April 23, 2007

Why You Aren’t Reading An Apprentice Recap

You may have noticed that while I continue to mention The Amazing Race at any opportunity I can manufacture to do so – like right now (how cool was that descent from the Macau Tower – and that's a commercial operation so that if you ever get to Macau you can have the thrill of jumping off a building without the sudden stop at the end just like the contestants on the show) – I haven't mentioned The Apprentice at all this season. There's a good reason for that: I haven't watched at all since about the fifth episode.

I do know why I stopped watching The Apprentice. It was, as you might expect, a combination of things. The transfer of the show from New York to Los Angeles was one thing. When you think of The Apprentice you think of Donald Trump and when you think of Donald Trump you think of New York (and maybe Atlantic City). But this time they weren't in the town so nice they named it twice, they were in Los Angeles, and I don't associate Trump with LaLa Land at all.

Another thing that the show did was to replace both of Trump's sidekicks. He had famously fired my lust object Caroline Kepcher (although she says she quit – either way it was quite abrupt) and started using his far less savvy (and far less attractive, but that's beside the point) spawn Ivanka as one of his "eyes and ears." Except Ivanka frequently wasn't there and was replaced variously by her brother Don Jr. (a chip off the old blockhead) and various winning candidates from previous seasons. Even worse was the decision not to have a second observer. Gone is Vice President and Senior Council George Ross, without replacement. Ivanka, or whoever was sitting in for her, would do all the observing and when it came time to advice Mr. Trump in the boardroom, the second chair would be filled by the project manager from the winning team. That gave the person the opportunity to kiss Trump's butt and undermine the opposition. I guess that's okay, but it still doesn't seem all that fair given that the winning project manager hasn't seen how the other team performed and doesn't bring the sort of business expertise to the table that a senior member of the Trump organization does.

Another major change was that winning Project Managers would continue in that role until their team was defeated. It sounds like a reward for being a successful PM, but there are several faults in the concept. The biggest of these is that if The Apprentice is nominally about seeing which candidate is suited to running a project for one of Trump's companies, it is fairly important to see how the candidates will perform in a leadership position. Having one person stay as Project Manager as long as there team wins means that fewer candidates on a team that wins repeatedly – as happened in this season – will have their leadership capabilities shown. In fact, of the final four candidates, one had been project manager three times and had a 2-1 record as PM, two had one loss as project managers (and that happened in the first two episodes), and one – Stefani Schaeffer – had no experience as a Project Manager at all – and she was the eventual winner! Meanwhile Heidi, the person with the greatest success as a Project Manager (three wins, one loss) didn't make it to the Final Four. Her record obviously doesn't make her the best candidate any more than Stefani's lack of a record meant that she is a poor leader. What it does mean is that we, and Trump, had more chance to see Heidi as a leader than we did Steffani, and how do you evaluate someone as a leader without seeing them lead?

Then of course there was the whole business of housing the candidates. Series creator Mark Burnett seems to have fallen in love with this business of luxury versus deprivation, although this "Haves vs. Have-nots" format was actually suggested by Trump himself. He used it in Survivor where Moto Beach had all the luxuries of home except maybe a TV, while Ravu Beach had a rusty machete and a leaky pot. Well maybe the pot didn't leak but the principle is the same. On The Apprentice luxury took the form of a rented Hollywood mansion complete with swimming pool, although significantly it was somewhat lower on the hill than the mansion that Trump and his entourage had rented. Deprivation was "Tent City", which was on the mansion grounds but separated by a hedge from all the good stuff. Truth be known, even the people on Moto Beach would have seen Tent City as a step up although only a slight step up. Tent City had a wash basin for food and clothes (although at least one of the teams didn't seem able to figure out how to wash their own dishes), a cook stove with utensils, and cots for everyone. The trouble is of course that this doesn't seem to really have anything to do with business. And as was most definitely the case in Survivor being a part of the team suffering deprivation – the Have-Nots – tended to perform poorly in subsequent tasks. In fact one of the candidates resigned because she couldn't handle the conditions that she was subjected to in Tent City – she hadn't signed up for that. Trump snarked at her about quitting.

On the whole this season of The Apprentice has been a massive disappointment, and the series ratings seem to indicate that. Last season's ratings, when the show aired on Monday night, were down over previous years but it still drew and average of 9.73 million viewers (and that figure doesn't included the season finale which drew 11.25 million but aired "after the official television season ended"). This season, airing on Sunday night, the first episode drew 4.3 million – less than half of the average rating for the previous season – and the second episode drew under 4 million (Wikipedia; these numbers are at some variance with the figures that Marc Berman of Media Week quotes – choose "Click here to chat" on The Programming Insider box to reach the forums and review previous Sunday ratings). Whatever the actual results the ratings have been anaemic and the move to the third hour of Sunday night at the beginning of March not only didn't improve them, it appears to have made them worse. This puts a lie to Trump's repeated claims about the show's popularity (certainly he makes no claims about the response of critics or awards, where the show has consistently been defeated by The Amazing Race). I'm not entirely sure where the blame for this belongs. Sir Alan Sugar, who is the "Trump" analog in the British version of The Apprentice, has some thoughts: "When you're on a winner, you stick to the winner. You polish it and enhance it and try to make it more interesting to the public. Keep it simple; don't fall to the temptation of changing things just for the sake of changing things. I've watched the American series and they've made the fatal error of trying to change things just for the sake of it and it backfired. What you're going to see here is tougher tasks, better people and a very clear picture for the viewer. We've polished a great product." I think that he's right, at least in part, with the "proof" that the show has gone astray by adding new gimmicks being made obvious with the depressed ratings. On the other hand, after everything that has been going on away from the show – most notoriously the feud with Rosie O'Donnell – the public might just be sick and tired of Donald Trump. Either way, NBC has a problem on their hands as they've apparently already renewed The Apprentice for a seventh season when other shows with ratings like these are not only not renewed but are frequently pulled from the line-up before they finish their season.

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