by Alice Gallop

We are currently in the midst of the fourteenth series of Dragons’ Den and the new series of The Apprentice is almost upon us. Through these shows the viewing public is treated to a ‘fly on the wall’ insight into what makes an entrepreneur.

Except they are not and it isn’t. Far from an accurate portrayal, both programmes are a parody of the entrepreneurial process, and of entrepreneurs themselves, leaving those in the know throwing cushions at the TV when one of the aspiring Rockefellers utter gems such as, “my first word wasn’t mummy, it was money”.

The Apprentice, in particular, is guilty of serving up the same old identikit no-marks each with sharp suits, wheelie suitcases and clichéd arrogance, inventing a distorted caricature of entrepreneurs. True entrepreneurs are unlike most other people. They are unusual — you can sometimes even tell just by looking at them. They are far from The Apprentice contestants who seem to have opted en masse for the favoured dress code of happy hour at All Bar One. Whilst taking the leap to entrepreneurship requires a certain degree of confidence in your own abilities and your ideas, an ego the size of Canary Wharf is hardly a prerequisite. The Apprentice peddles the misconception that you have to be some sort of narcissistic maniac to succeed in business (yes — one contestant really did say, ‘I am the reflection of perfection’).

Yet, some may reason that whilst the clackety stilettos, hair gel and over-inflated egos may have us watching through gritted teeth, it is actually just harmless. Former Dragon James Caan agreed that these ‘TV shows are made for entertainment’.

However, you do have to question at what cost this entertainment is coming at. The public perception of entrepreneurship can have a strong influence on people’s desire to become entrepreneurs and it is in countries where entrepreneurship is held in high regard that the overall rates of entrepreneurship are correspondingly high. A YouGov poll commissioned by the Centre for Entrepreneurs revealed that business-related TV programmes such as The Apprentice and Dragons’ Den have damaged the nation’s notion of entrepreneurship. 61% of respondents thought The Apprentice was “off-putting” for aspiring entrepreneurs and 88% thought that the candidates were chosen to appear because they would make good television, rather than because they offer credible investment opportunities.

Even if you are not dissuaded from entrepreneurialism by the programmes’ severe misrepresentation, the show hardly provides useful lessons for aspiring individuals. Candidates are pitted against each other in what seems to be Hunger Games (trading warrior dress for suit and tie). The message of the show is one of separation rather than collaboration. Simon Duffy, the co-founder of men’s skincare brand, Bulldog, correctly points out ‘smaller companies need to collaborate their way to success’.

The programme also transmits deleterious messages about the treatment of customers. It doesn’t matter if the product is ridiculous or revolting, it just has to be sold. In a world where your competitor is just one click away, this transitory attitude is a suicidal message to disseminate to aspiring entrepreneurs.

Britain needs entrepreneurs who are positive role models, who inspire others, who help create jobs and keep our economy moving forward. Yet, contestants in both The Apprentice and Dragons’ Den seem to have been chosen for purely entertainment purposes. The “Dragons” participate for the publicity and the producers want laughs, tears and, at times, jaw-dropping idiocy. As Simon Woodroffe — one of the original Dragons — said, “The thing to remember is that when you walk up the stairs [to pitch an idea] it’s not five people thinking ‘How am I going to be able to make an investment here?’ They’re actually thinking ‘Am I going to be the star of this next little piece?’”

Of course, the biggest element of ‘entre-tainment’, or should I say ‘entre-taintment’ is to (besides not actually being an entrepreneur) entertain the public. I think it is safe for us to say that it would be easier to find a needle in a haystack or a non ripe-and-ready avocado that is, in actual fact, ripe and ready, than it is to spot comparisons between these aforementioned programmes and the real world of entrepreneurship.

As Matt Smith — the Director of the Centre for Entrepreneurs — concludes, it may be 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”. Successful entrepreneurs are the people who have have unlimited passion and enthusiasm for their product or service. They are keen to put long hours into making it happen and they are determined to persevere even when everyone and everything seems to be against them. These are the entrepreneurs of today and it is these people that we should be promoting, rather than the unrealistic portrayals that the BBC continues to present to us.