After a hard working day, even business owners like to find time to relax in front of the telly. But, when they’ve pushed the paperwork to one side and put their feet up, what can they find that’s relevant and of interest to them in the TV schedules?
Not much, it would seem. Series like The Apprentice and Dragons’ Den claim to be about business, but most real-life entrepreneurs think such programmes bear little relation to their everyday experience. And young people are likely to be actively turned off the idea of enterprise by these types of show, according to new research.
A recent YouGov poll of SME leaders asked them what they thought of the current crop of business-related programming. Three out of four felt that The Apprentice presented a false picture of the challenges of investment, with contestants on Lord Sugar’s competing teams accused of portraying business people in a negative light. Meanwhile, more than half of those surveyed complained that elevator pitch show Dragons’ Den suggested that companies had to borrow in order to grow, with the only option for small firms being to swap equity for cash. About 53 per cent of business owners also wanted more TV programming that demonstrated alternative funding options for small firms.
All in all, real-life business men and women appear to think these programmes do more harm than good in terms of illustrating how commerce works. But does it matter if television paints a false picture of business life and focuses on entertainment rather than real experience? Luke Johnson, serial entrepreneur and co-founder of the Centre for Entrepreneurs that commissioned the YouGov poll, believes it does. He maintains that television solely looking for the entertainment value in business, without showing the true grit, courage and hard-won reward of day-to-day life as an entrepreneur, undermines the efforts of Britain’s many millions of SMEs and discourages others from taking the plunge into business ownership. He has said:
“Government, the media and big business – despite all claiming to support entrepreneurs – can undermine entrepreneurship through unhelpful legislation, image stereotyping and monopolistic behaviour. We believe this is partly due to under-representation of entrepreneurs in the public eye.”
The negative stereotyping of business people is nothing new. Literature has often demonised business for dramatic effect, perhaps no writer more famously than Charles Dickens, who created such memorable and avaricious characters as Ebeneezer Scrooge and Mr Merdle in Little Dorrit, who historian Tristram Hunt has likened to a literary Bernie Madoff. This seemingly negative attitude of art towards commerce hasn’t always been the case. Up until the nineteenth century, literature found room for sympathetic portrayals of business people. Just look at Daniel Defoe, one of the creators of the novel, and a man who worked as a trader as well as a writer. Some critics read his most famous character, Robinson Crusoe, as the personification of praise to business activity, making his way as a mariner and a merchant in the book before his shipwreck on the infamous desert island. Professor Joseph Badaracco of Harvard Business School (HBS) teaches classes revealing the many great business leaders hiding between the pages of fiction. He runs a course at HBS showing the business and leadership lessons that can be learned from characters such as Sir Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons.
So, while it may require a bit of a search, it would seem that business owners can find inspiration and role models in books. And back on the small screen, television bosses have also managed to cater for a business audience with success in the past. Those with a long enough memory may recall Sir John Harvey-Jones as the BBC’s Troubleshooter in the 1990s. This hugely popular documentary-style programme, which ran for five series and won several television awards, saw the former ICI chairman going in to struggling businesses and helping turn them around. A revival of the format called I’ll Show Them Who’s Boss, featuring former chairman of Allied Domecq and Granada Gerry Robinson, was equally serious and hard hitting in its delivery of uncomfortable home truths for the owners of ailing companies, suggesting real solutions to difficult business problems.
Television today may favour more of a game show approach to its business programming, but it is failing to reflect its target audience. Real entrepreneurs are clear in their message that they don’t want to be patronised or made to look like greedy numb-skulls, and they would like to see a more realistic portrayal of the tough realities of running a business. What they need is clear and useful information about how to run their operation efficiently, manage staff and gain access to funding. The programme that can deliver that will truly have the winning pitch with Britain’s discriminating business viewers.
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