There’s plenty of evidence around at the moment that indicates we’re a culture where a good number of us dream of a level of freedom and independence that is pretty difficult to achieve given the ongoing nature of the economic crisis and continued austerity politics. There’s a lot to worry about right now with youth unemployment and the cost of education rising; with worker’s rights being potentially for sale in return for shares and the working poor making up a large proportion of welfare claimants. Efficiency drives at work and redundancies are all too real spectres in people’s lives – a worker’s lot is not a happy one right now. Dreams of financial independence and autonomy get played out in the extravagant pipe dreams of fame, fortune and celebrity in programmes like The Voice and The X Factor whilst, what appear (on the surface) to be more realistic dreams find expression in a number of programmes based on the idea of running a business and being free from the lack of self-determination that comes with being an employee. BBC1’s The Young Apprentice has just returned to our screens joining Dragon’s Den (BBC2) and the recent Be Your own Boss (BBC3) and Food to Market (Sky Living), all examples of the growing genre of entrepreneur-porn.
Using slightly different formats, these programmes share the central idea that wealth and happiness will come from hard work, commitment and talent – but not within the constraints of salaried employment but from within the self-determined position that comes from being self-employed. Each show offers money to the most talented, hardworking, innovative and focused ‘applicant’ – money that is intended to help them to build their own business and help them achieve their dreams. Applicants/contestants can range from the naive to the deluded at one end to eccentrically gifted, cynically mercenary or aggressively greedy at the other. Each programme, however, puts forward the idea of business-building and entrepreneurialism is the path to success and fulfilment.
Richard Reed is one of the founders of Innocent Drinks, most well-known for its smoothies. In Be Your Own Boss he offers investment capital to small businesses who he sees as having the potential to succeed. He portrays the face of ‘caring capitalism’ making sure he reinforces his company’s green and ethical image (impressively with no sense of irony given the fact that Innocent’s majority shareholder is Coca-Cola) presumably to appeal to the more ‘socially aware’ BBC3 target audience. He offers entrepreneurs investment money if they are able to prove the viability of their idea or product and was shown to favour those with ethical approaches, rejecting other business when they didn’t tick the right ethical boxes. BBC3′s foray into this genre has taken a meritocratic approach. There’s no element of competition between budding businessmen in Be Your Own Boss as Reed has a pretty large pot of cash at his disposal and ‘winners’ are chosen on merit. Framed comically by the Nick ‘down with the kids*’ Grimshaw voiceover that (needlessly and somewhat patronisingly) attempts to turn Be Your Own Boss into Come Dine with Me by adopting a position of sneering superiority or adding Carry On… quality double entendre as much as possible. Slightly more Darwinian is Cooks to Market where food based companies compete in a simple ‘who makes more money’ challenge. At times the competition seems a touch slanted as the foodstuffs in competition can be so different (flavoured dipping oils vs handmade chocolates, for example) it seems unrealistic to put them up against each other. The scheduling of the two programmes indicates they are targeted towards a more niche than mainstream audience and this may explain their respective takes on capitalist endeavour. The idealism of youth is pandered to on BBC3 whereas there is a more nurturing, advice giving focus in Food to Market on the more female oriented Sky Living (who can also find hints and tips as to how they too can get host Gizzi Erskine’s ‘look’).
Programmes with a more ‘macho’ approach to capitalism are found on BBCs 1 and 2. Dragon’s Den plays on the idea of vulture capitalism and ‘the dragons’ are often pitted against contestants in a battle as each side attempts to negotiate the best business deal for themselves. When Dragons dislike a business idea, they can be scathing in the extreme often rude and needlessly cruel. But then, this is business and the ‘dog eat dog’ world is symbolically identified by those who sit with the source of their power by their sides – a pile of cash. There is surely no clearer indicator of the way our culture is defined and ultimately divided – the Dragon’s have and the rest of us have-not. Then there is the daddy of all entrepreneur-porn shows, The Apprentice and its spin-off The Young Apprentice. The adult version is not so much a showcase for business skills and expertise as it asserts but rather it has become a comedy of the absurd, allowing the audience to marvel at comic ineptitude and disorganisation combined often with levels of egotistical self-assurance that would make Napoleon wince. Presiding over all this is ‘Lord Sugar’ – the epitome of a ‘self-made man’ who attended the ‘school of hard knocks’ and whose humble beginnings purport to act as an example that anyone can become a millionaire businessman. The programme is a cut-throat competition where contestants often attempt to look good by making others look bad and where weakness is identified and preyed upon. The characteristics that get rewarded are those that favour the success of the individual and, as with all the other programmes in this genre, The Apprentice sets up the ultimate goal, as being getting a hand-out to help start a business. (Looking at some past Apprentice contestants I’d put money on a good few of them being the types who would pour scorn and derision over those who are dependent on state welfare hand-outs – but in this context is seems the idea of holding one’s hand out is ok). This prize has replaced The Apprentice’s original concept which was that the series was an extended interview for a well-paid job working for Alan Sugar. Perhaps highlighting how being an employee can be less than ideal, the final winner of a job offer Stella English left her job in Sugar’s organisation and is suing for constructive dismissal.
Perhaps most disturbing though is the youth version of the show. Filled with deluded 17 year olds – some defining themselves in ways far beyond their qualifications or experience (the contestants declare themselves ‘private tutors’, ‘fashion designers’, ‘online fashion dealers’, ‘online vintage clothes dealers’ (e-bay seems to be a popular stomping ground for budding entrepreneurs)) these young people epitomise the greedy and self-serving aspects of the culture they have been born into. Happy to throw one another on the bonfire if it will serve their agenda, they seem to have swallowed the values of competitive capitalism hook, line and sinker. Their values are their own business of course – but there’s something depressing about a teenager who thinks ‘that power just gravitates towards me’ and then go on to declare, ‘not only am I academic, I am social, I am economical (sic), I am philosophical. Everything you can think of, I am it’. Of course deluded adults are regularly used as cannon fodder for reality television. It seems somewhat inappropriate to use teens in the same way simply so we can be entertained.
The rise in the popularity of these programmes could be seen as a reflection of the way the government’s desire to see small business at the heart of an economic recovery is starting to take hold. Unfortunately the benevolent Richard Reed, the belligerent Alan Sugar and the bellicose Dragons are acting in a way that is not reflected in the real world. Banks (despite government bail-outs) are not investing in small businesses and so existing businesses cannot grow and new ones cannot start. These programmes actually identify how far away the dream of being one’s own boss is in a climate where banks won’t lend, low pay is normalised and where unemployment is a tangible threat (if not a harsh reality). Given the fact that, in the current climate, being an employee tends to alienate rather than create a sense of self-worth it’s hardly surprising that we might want a Fairy Godfather (very occasionally a godmother) to take us away from all that.
* It does have to be said though – if Robbie Williams wants to stay musically ‘relevant’ Candy is not the way to do it… and he might want to avoid The X Factor whilst he’s at it…