TV image of entrepreneurs off-putting

Dragons’ Den and The Apprentice portrayal based on entertainment rather than encouraging entrepreneurship.

Two BBC television programmes – Dragons’ Den and The Apprentice – project an inaccurate image of entrepreneurs and the business startup process that could be off-putting for people considering starting their own business. These are findings of a YouGov survey of small business leaders for the Centre for Entrepreneurs, which has called for broadcasters to do more to reflect the positive role of entrepreneurs in their programming.

The Centre, which launched this month – spearheaded by the Legatum Institute and serial entrepreneur and former Channel 4 Chairman Luke Johnson – commissioned the survey to explore the impact of entrepreneurial programming on startup formation. Yet it found that, although the programmes have played a role in raising awareness (76%) of entrepreneurship, the narrow and outdated programme formats, as well as the poor portrayal of those involved, is doing more harm than good.

The Apprentice – in which 16 young entrepreneurs are whittled down to a single winner of a £250,000 investment from Lord Sugar – generated a particularly negative response from small business leaders. Some 88% of those familiar with The Apprentice thought that the candidates were chosen to appear on the show because they would make good television, rather than because they offer credible investment opportunities. Meanwhile, 61% of respondents thought the show portrays entrepreneurs in a negative light while 61% believed the behaviour of contestants was off-putting to aspiring entrepreneurs.

Dragons’ Den, in which would-be entrepreneurs showcase their ideas to five hard- headed angel investors, was another BBC programme that respondents considered unhelpful when it came to encouraging would-be business startups. Some 76% of respondents who are familiar with the show thought that the entrepreneurs seeking investment were chosen because they would make good television, with just 13% thinking they were chosen to pitch in “the Den” because the offered credible investment opportunities.

Some 55% were concerned that Dragons’ Den creates a misconception that all businesses require equity investment to succeed, while 53% called for a new TV programming providing greater coverage of alternative funding approaches for startups, including the use of crowd-funding.

And many were unhappy by what they saw as the patronising grilling from the panel of would-be investors (the “Dragons”) – with words such as “condescending” and “rude” featuring strongly as descriptions of panellists.

Meanwhile, many respondents thought the would-be entrepreneurs were portrayed as “naive” or “unprepared”. One respondent commented, “[The programme] is so highly edited: the portrayal is cynically designed to show them as either idiots or cases worthy of sympathy/admiration according to what makes the best television.

The format of The Apprentice was also criticised, with 74% of small business decision makers agreeing that it does not present an accurate picture of the business investment process. Some 55% of respondents supported a revised format where entrepreneurs would pitch their ideas to Lord Sugar first, before shortlisted contestants undertake the usual challenges to prove their entrepreneurial credentials.

The Centre has called upon broadcasters to provide a more realistic portrayal of entrepreneurs and the business startup process, as well as do more to celebrate the diversity of British startups and high-growth companies.

Luke Johnson, Chairman of the Centre said: “Entrepreneurs come from a range of backgrounds and are motivated by all manner of goals. The vast majority of entrepreneurs are not egotistic or mad, they simply want to work for themselves and make a difference – thus generating enormous benefits for the UK in terms of job creation and innovation. Yet the contestants in both programmes seem to have been chosen for their entertainment value above all else. They come with a set of attributes that could only be described as off-putting. With The Apprentice the programme’s producers seem to be deliberately portraying, particularly-young entrepreneurs as greedy, self-regarding and, frankly, a bit dim-witted. Meanwhile, on Dragons’ Den they are treated like lambs to the slaughter. How is this helping the UK economy?”

Matt Smith, Director of the Centre concludes: “While both programmes have raised awareness of entrepreneurship, they seem stuck with a tired format pushing a narrow and flawed image of entrepreneurs. It is now time for the BBC to mature their programmes to reflect the positive side of entrepreneurship, and to celebrate their wider value in society and the economy. Entrepreneurs are transforming Britain’s industries, communities and culture: the BBC needs to reflect this.”

All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 547 senior decision makers, 406 of whom were aware of Dragons Den or The Apprentice. Fieldwork was undertaken between 16th – 19th September 2013. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).