Reality TV shows can be a public service

First published in the Financial Times on 20th March 2012.

If wealth creators are admired rather than vilified, they might inspire the next generation

One of my business partners has a dilemma: should he agree to our company appearing on a reality television show?

I did it twice, more than 10 years ago. The first time was fine, although the programme disappeared without trace. The second occasion was rather – ahem – less successful and afterwards I deeply regretted my moment of TV vanity.

So my initial advice was: “Don’t give in to your ego – tell the producers to forget it.”

But the power of TV to influence is undeniable – and the temptation to promote one’s brand can be overwhelming. Whether the audience is watching via a TV set, laptop or mobile, the impact of a primetime slot remains – for good and ill.

And in recent years, entrepreneurs have appeared much more often on the major channels, even inspiring a new book, The Television Entrepreneurs, by the academics Raymond Boyle and Lisa Kelly.

The format that achieves highest ratings is the reality/entertainment broadcast. These programmes are widespread because they are popular, and cheap and quick to make. When I was chairman of Channel 4 we pioneered a number of these features, and for a time they were a crucial part of our schedule.

One variation is the show where the entrepreneur is a presenter or troubleshooter – classics being Mary Queen of Shops, Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares or Property Ladder.

Then there are shows in which the protagonist/entrepreneur acts as a judge or an investor – the two giants of the business reality genre, The Apprentice and Dragons’ Den, both fall into this category.

A third category includes shows where the entrepreneurs disguise themselves to discover the truth anonymously – Undercover Boss and The Secret Millionaire are typical examples.

American Chopper represents another theme – the family-run, custom motorcycle manufacturer is portrayed as a real-life soap opera, including on-air lawsuits.

To an extent, all such productions, even though they are unscripted, will stage material in order to dramatise it. Such contrivances are probably necessary in order to achieve high ratings and get commissioned by the networks. Mass audiences have a limited interest in entrepreneurship in itself – human issues such as conflict, humour and redemption are naturally more appealing.

But if it takes the The Apprentice and Dragons’ Den to provide role models for tomorrow’s managers, investors and inventors, then they provide a service to the economy of sorts.

Less mainstream, but more realistic and informative, are genuine documentaries – an excellent example of which is The Man Who Wanted to Furnish the World, about Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of
Ikea. What makes this film remarkable is how revealing it is about such a secretive man, a retail titan who changed the way we buy furniture. Many know that Mr Kamprad is one of the richest men on the planet – but what he also admits is how he has suffered from low self-esteem, alcohol problems and a difficult family life.

The rise of business reality TV has been instrumental in producing a new sort of tycoon in Britain – the celebrity entrepreneur. The US has always appreciated capitalists more, so its culture has created more rock ’n’ roll millionaires – of which Steve Jobs was perhaps the most famous. Even now, coach loads of admirers make pilgrimages to the late Apple founder’s house in California.

Much better that business and its protagonists are household names than clandestine figures. If wealth creators are admired rather than vilified, it will surely inspire the next generation of founders.

So, while I dislike the caricature of business that most reality shows project, it is likely that they have encouraged many younger people to consider starting an enterprise. Such factual transmissions dressed up as entertainment have formed perceptions of the world of commerce – some of them positive. If this delivers more new businesses, innovation and jobs, it can only be applauded.

In a sense, this could genuinely be called public service television. Of course TV is edited, and distorts the experience and challenges that entrepreneurs face. But if it helps, in Reithian manner, to “educate, inform and entertain” the public about risk-taking, then the more the better.