The Apprentice: Ratings or Reality?

The premise: 16 individuals are split into two teams, asked to perform various tasks in order for their team to succeed and ultimately reach their own goal of winning. Each week someone new is voted off the show. This continues until one person is left standing. No. This is not Survivor – same concept, same creator (Mark Burnett), but a different world in which to survive.

Trade in the skimpy outfits for suits and the Tribal Council for the boardroom and you get The Apprentice. Instead of vying for $1M, contestants are competing for a chance to run one of Donald Trump’s companies with a $250K salary – smaller monetary payoff than Survivor, but larger long-term benefits.

Personally, I’m not a fan of reality shows – never did see one episode of Survivor. Networks try to sell these TV shows as real world situations, but they are contrived and barely realistic. However, they can be very entertaining, which is the purpose of a television show. But I thought I would give The Apprentice a chance, thinking that it would have female representation and therefore might provide good role models for women looking to get into business. My hopes were very quickly crushed. Like other television shows, The Apprentice catered to and enforced stereotypes. In the very first episode, teams were divided by sex. My first thought was, oh no, the men will crush the women, enforcing the stereotype that women are not as good as men in business. But NBC decided to focus on a different stereotype: women have to rely on sex appeal and not their brains.

For the first task, each team was given $250 and instructed to sell lemonade. Those that produced the most profit won this round. After initial disorganization, the women came out on top. With each glass of lemonade the women sold, they also sold sex – a kiss or a personal phone number. On the one-hand, this was a brilliant selling technique, showing creative ingenuity. The men had the option to hire women to do the same thing, or even try to be sexual themselves. On the other-hand, this played right into stereotypes of women being sexual but not as intelligent.

With each glass of lemonade the women sold, they also sold sex – a kiss or a personal phone number.

The third episode tested the women’s negotiating skills. They were able to save money and “negotiate” with the sales agent by doing unorthodox actions, like dancing and begging. However, the women had made good business decisions. Unfortunately, the focus has been on their sex appeal. Speaking to a fellow MBA student, he believed that using sex to sell a product is not necessarily a bad thing; it just depends on the product. For example, if the teams needed to sell lingerie, it would be appropriate to use sex to sell. But sex has no place in a glass of lemonade. That just becomes inappropriate, for men and women.

The NBC network has created sensationalist television that caters to characterization and having people play roles. Managerial and executive women everywhere cringe when they see an episode of The Apprentice because the women on the show are displaying the inability to get ahead by using the same skillset men would use. Women in the real world have worked hard to get where they are at, and didn’t use sex to sell themselves. But normality doesn’t sell. NBC needs something spicier – something to keep the viewers watching every week.

But the men are losing out too. On the cover of TV Guide,  Donald can be seen flanked by two of the female competitors – in suits, but with their shirts unbuttoned to reveal their bras and bellies. The show has become about the women, with the men as a mere footnote.

The other noticeable stereotype that NBC has explicitly enforced by their show is that of general business people. If I had never met someone in business, after watching The Apprentice, I would think that a business person is conniving, selfish, and not a team player. In reality, this is not the case. Within a business, the atmosphere is not as cut-throat as NBC would want you to believe. Sure, there is competition between firms, and maybe even some within companies. But in reality, people’s jobs are not dependent on ousting someone else. To survive in business you do need to be able to work on a team. A good leader can listen to those around them, without always dominating the conversation.

NBC had the opportunity to create something truly wonderful. They had the idea for a new spin on a reality show, they had The Donald, and they had an interested market. But instead of reality, we were given a show that was carefully casted to include certain personality types and characters, that have given us constant bickering, sexist stereotypes, and a lot of backstabbing. The Apprentice takes qualities that you will find in the business world, and magnifies them 1,000 times. Yes, people care about their own careers and promotions. Yes, give the chance, people may be sneaky in business. And yes, being good looking can help in business. But in the real world, there are other qualities that provide a balance.

The important thing is to remember this is a television show, and not reality. NBC and The Donald chose people that would provide them with a certain dynamic. Having overweight, boring, middle-management folks would have provided a very different show. Each episode is carefully edited to provide you what they want you to see. NBC doesn’t show you all of the brilliant decisions the women have made, just how they executed them with their sex appeal. While my hair may curl when I see a woman sell her sex appeal with the lemonade, I remind myself that it’s just TV and I have a remote control.