The Rebirth of Business Television - speech given at Enterprise Britain Summit '05
Monday 14 November 2005
(Dragons’ Den clip)
Good morning everyone. I wonder how many people here have found themselves in a nerve wracking situation like that – having to make a pitch to a hard-nosed bunch like the panel of entrepreneurs on Dragons' Den.
Anyone who can sell their ideas under that kind of critical gaze with the added tension of television cameras watching their every move deserves to succeed, in my opinion.
I wanted to show that clip from the new series of Dragons' Den, which starts tomorrow on BBC TWO, because it illustrates a concept that would have once seemed revolutionary – that programmes about business can actually be entertaining as well as informative.
The BBC may not have an agenda to turn Britain into a nation of entrepreneurs but by enriching viewers' understanding of business we can provide a valuable catalyst.
By making business programmes interesting and accessible, we can give more people the confidence to get started.
By applying the techniques of reality television in positive ways we can help to bring business to life for people who would never normally watch business programmes.
By giving vivid illustrations of all kinds of people engaged in the business world, we can show business at its best can be more classless and offer a broader range of role models than many other activities in society.
Whether the message is getting through is a key question for this summit to consider.
It appears Britain still doesn't quite have the 'go for it' attitude of the United States – last year Gordon Brown highlighted the fact that the number of people who say they are considering starting up a business here is a third lower.
But from a media perspective I can tell you we are currently seeing growing interest in business and enterprise from a broad spectrum of British society.
For example, programmes like Dragons' Den and The Apprentice are attracting a wider audience than other programmes we broadcast at the same peak times during the evening.
Dragons' Den, as we saw a moment ago, gives budding entrepreneurs a chance to bid for real investment funds.
It has many more younger viewers than is usual for its 8.00pm slot – 61 per cent are aged under 55 and ten per cent are between 16 and 34, six points higher than the average.
The Apprentice did even better with younger viewers, with 64 per cent under 55 and 11 per cent between 16 and 34.
And these are shows that have grown in impact. With the finale clocking up 3.6 million viewers The Apprentice became one of the most talked-about shows on British TV.
However, BBC TWO has a long record of innovation in business television, going right back to the launch of The Money Programme in 1966.
That programme has evolved over the years and it continues today as BBC TWO's flagship weekly business affairs programme alongside Working Lunch every weekday.
Both regular slots have won numerous awards over the years and they continue to set the agenda by presenting serious business issues in a way that viewers can relate to.
But you can trace the roots of today's rebirth of business television to another legendary series featuring a highly charismatic figure - Troubleshooter, presented by Sir John Harvey-Jones, the former chairman of ICI.
First broadcast in 1990, Troubleshooter pioneered the shift of business programmes away from straight documentaries to something more constructed in which Sir John offered expert advice to company bosses without sparing any blushes.
The producer of Troubleshooter was Robert Thirkell, and he, more than anyone, first succeeded in bringing business programmes to mainstream audiences.
He did it not by analysing business theory but by using dramatic structure to tell a story, with business leaders cast as the dramatic heroes.
Sometimes the hero would succeed against the odds and come through triumphantly at the end. Or the drama could turn out to be a tragedy like that of Icarus, in which an excess of self belief leads inexorably to a sudden, ignominious fall to earth.
It was a revolutionary idea to apply archetypal dramatic principles to business programmes – and it took a bit of work.
The Troubleshooter team originally tried out the idea at a manufacturer of heat exchangers in Herefordshire and I'm told the results were dull enough to send most viewers to sleep.
They had to work out the sort of companies and risks that would make great stories, then how to portray the different parts of the company – from the shopfloor to finance and marketing – making them comprehensible in an entertaining and dramatic way.
Robert went on to develop three long-running spin-off series that developed the concept of creative business programmes on BBC TWO.
Back to the Floor gave bosses a taste of what it's like to work at the bottom of the corporate ladder.
Trouble At The Top followed the personal struggles of business leaders through turbulent times.
And Blood on the Carpet examined some infamous business battles through the eyes of key decision makers.
More recently the idea of presenter as protagonist has seen Gerry Robinson advising family businesses in I'll Show Them Who's Boss.
Today all these programmes are widely used by teachers to bring business theory alive to students.
But they originally won a place in the BBC TWO schedules on merit for one simple reason – because audiences enjoyed them.
When it comes to engaging viewers, research shows that people can find the personal ups and downs of business as gripping as fictional drama.
Both The Apprentice and Dragons' Den have succeeded in engaging and involving a high proportion of viewers of all ages.
In programme-making terms, they have moved the two cultures of entertainment and factual programming closer together into a structure that is designed for entertainment but based on reality.
What audiences love about Dragons' Den, for example, is the sense that real investments are being made and real risks are being taken in front of their eyes, both by people pitching the ideas and by the investors who put up their own money.
The programme brings to life concepts that have rarely been seen before by most viewers – what it means to give away equity in a company, what it means to value a business and what it means to calculate a venture's long-term prospects.
It sheds more light on these subjects than almost any documentary I can remember, and it does it through the classic television technique of showing, not telling.
Viewers get emotionally involved with the protagonists and that emotional engagement makes it possible for them to learn naturally.
Simply watching both sides forced to make calculations on the spot is highly revealing.
Viewers who are interested will learn intuitively, picking up clues about concepts that are essential knowledge for anyone thinking of getting a business plan off the ground.
The Apprentice is perhaps skewed more towards the entertainment side of the reality TV spectrum.
But it too offers valuable insights – about business skills amounting to more than financial skills, about the role of tenacity and persuasiveness, about the value of charm and strength of personality, and the importance of being able to think on your feet.
Again it shows rather than tells how many different kinds of personalities and skills can achieve success in business; about how the winner may turn out to be the best at compensating for weaknesses and working with others to achieve outcomes.
As well as the return of Dragons' Den tomorrow, BBC TWO will be following up some of the investment winners from the first series.
The Apprentice is also back for a second series in the New Year and we expect a lot of interest.
While retaining the successful formula, the producers are aiming to strengthen the business credibility of the characters this time – especially the women – and to ensure that the tasks they are set have a strong business message running through them.
One thing that won't change is the diversity of the candidates. The first series drew on powerful black and Asian protagonists, one of whom got fired in the first round and two of whom made it right through to the very end.
All four final contenders to be Sir Alan Sugar's new apprentice turned out to be children of immigrants.
This year's winner and runner up – Tim Campbell and Saira Khan – have made a deep impression judging by the thousands of people who've been turning up for interviews at open days across the country.
There's been a particularly large response from ethnic minorities, from women and young people, and perhaps that is because everyone is confident that the show gives them an opportunity based on their true ability.
The Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Phillips, recently hailed the role of reality shows like The Apprentice in breaking ethnic minority stereotypes.
"Who could ever dare to ask British Asian women to be sweet, submissive and silent," he enquired, "after watching Saira Khan in action?"
Shows like this are all about doing a deal and getting the money to change hands and watching them can be very liberating. It can open doors.
People respond to the idea that it's OK to go out there and work hard, to be tough and try and succeed. And if you do succeed, to make money.
I can announce today that we are also hoping to draw inspiration from those who've already made a lot of money.
In Millionaires' Challenge, which is about to go into production for BBC TWO, we'll challenge mega-rich entrepreneurs to prove they still have the Midas touch by doing it all over again.
Each will be stripped of all the trappings of their luxury lifestyle and given just £5,000 to start a new business from scratch. Then we'll see who comes out on top.
And the losers will have to have to hand over every penny they've made in the series.
We expect the programme to reveal as much about the ego of top business people as about starting a new business.
At the same time it should bring more business concepts to life and provide fascinating insights into how to become a successful entrepreneur.
I hope you will be watching some of the new business programmes on BBC TWO.
Whether or not they inspire you to make a million or two, I'm pretty sure you will enjoy them – and hopefully learn something interesting about the world of business.