Donald Trump might be missing interest payments on his casino empire but Australians certainly sat up and took notice when be debuted in The Apprentice on Channel Nine, as the fragrant Chanel No. 9 reports.

Donald Trump has a terrible hair cut with rotten colouring, some questionable taste, especially in interior decoration, but he’s a surprisingly personable, articulate, generous host of The Apprentice.

That the program, which debuted last week on the Nine Network, is a very commercial and very American program, shouldn’t detract from some of its virtues.

Life is competitive. Work is competitive. Sport is competitive. Even relaxing is competitive. The Apprentice reaches for all those areas and sparks off them.

The program is also a huge contrast to the miserable competitiveness shown in producer Mark Burnett’s original program ‘Survivor”, which Nine also airs on Tuesday nights.

Both programs are contrived. So what? The clever thing about Don’s show was the organising of the group into two groups with men in one and women in the other with company names. The tribes idea from “Survivor” is certainly contrived and derivative. But the audience can identify more closely, setting up some gender competition on and off screen, and no doubt a bit of UST, the factor that makes all good drama work in the end: Unresolved Sexual Tension.

Of course it’s sanitised, of course the competitors are almost cartoonish at times. But so too are the characters from The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. It’s entertainment. Even though Donald Trump is a bit overblown, egotistical , super wealthy with a touch of meglomania, being fired, hired by him would not be as demeaning as competing in Survivor. That is not a reality program. That is a tarted up American idea of Castaway with a touch of Forest Gump.

The Apprentice is quintessentially American, like ’em or not. It’s all about being allowed to fulfill the American dream to succeed no matter who you are. Failing in America doesn’t have the same stigma it has in Australia, especially in business. The 16 people grovelling and arguing their way towards Donald’s feet, are just being American in their behaviour. (By the way the winner was known earlier this month for those who want to cheat and win.)

Unfortunately it’s what we here have to put up with. Watching a program like this you can understand why multi-billion dollar corporate collapses like Enron and Worldcom happen. Mega failures, mega scandals. The American urge to succeed, be rich and be liked is a powerful force and Donald Trump and his producers understand that implicitly and trade on it to drive the program forward.

Its production values are superior to anything Australia has produced in reality. Just better talent, camera work editing, production values. Bigger market, bigger talent pool, but the producers of The Block in particular should take note. So too Big Brother and its $1 million prize.

For Nine, who ‘rested’ the successful ‘Stingers’ to give Don a run, it was a gamble because 9.30pm is a tough slot. It and the hour or so after have been made Nine’s by the network’s clever programming of some HBO offerings. Sex in the City, which goes to Ten next year for re-runs, The Sopranos, which returned after The Apprentice and Six Feet Under are all successful offbeat late night winners for Nine. The original was West Wing, which seems to be rested because of the war in Iraq. Reality is always tough for fictional TV dramas to compete with.

This sort of programming makes it much harder for Seven and Ten to attack Nine’s share of the ad dollars. By skillfully programming these offbeat, quirky, moderately rating shows, Nine can charge premiums rates for spots. The demographic would be quite specific to each program, but basically High A, B and C profiles (wealthy, manager, investor, white collar, business owner types).

Advertisers like these sort of programs and are willing to pay these premiums. They know for instance that very few young kids or old people would be watching Sex in the City or The Sopranos or Six Feet Under.

Nine aims to get a big share of the available audience in these time slots. Say with a million people watching nationally, if it can pick up 500,000 around the five major metro markets, then it has a 50% share, which is a strong selling point to advertisers. It will help capture a greater share of the ad dollars potentially available in these slots, depriving Seven and Ten of any chance of getting more.

An interesting move by Nine will be to repeat (they love the cute ‘encore’ description when the correct word would probably be reprise) the first episode of The Apprentice late on Saturday night.

After Don came The Sopranos. With the sort of lanaguage and ideas about success that are probably closer to reality in the business world, even though it’s a fictional drama. Can you imagine Tony Soprano fronting The Apprentice and saying “You’re fired”. It would be enough to frighten Kerry Packer, or resolve the NAB board stand-off.

Hitman, Apprentice, Sex Pot, President, Undertaker. What a mixture and what a mixture of original programming or original variants of existing ideas.

It’s no wonder US dramas are cleaning up for Nine this year and with the help of local hit McLeods Daughters it’s the big difference between itself and Seven and Ten. It’s why Ten and Seven will struggle until they can get their hands on programs that entertain.

A word to the wise men who run Nine – don’t commit the same mistake you made with Survivor and try to make your own version. It won’t work. These programs are one-off originals in their concept and execution. That’s why they work so well.

The Block was Australia’s only original piece of reality programming. Burke’s Backyard and Backyard Blitz are originals in their genres. Of the trio only Blitz continues to show its original vigour and strength. Burke’s Backyard has faded to a pale imitation of itself, while The Block is in urgent need of its own renovation before the series ends.

Of course The Apprentice could fade in the second series. Donald Trump could be humiliated by the possible failure of his casino/hotels business, which is certainly a strong possibility. That would damage his credibility for the program; though as he freely admits, he’s been a minus billionaire before and knows all about it.

It’s got the elements of a good idea that has been successfully developed into entertainment. And that is all it is.

And while Donald Trump suggested on A Current Affair that Kerry Packer could do the Aussie version, is there a timeslot big enough for him? Could you live after being fired by Kerry Packer? Ask David Leckie at Seven and Nick Falloon at Ten. They know all about being The Apprentice at Nine.

True to Nine’s thinking, The Apprentice won the 9.30pm to 10.30pm slot on Tuesday in Sydney and nationally with more than 1.1 million viewers, giving the network a good win over Ten’s Rove Live, which finished about 66,000 viewers behind.

Nine claimed in a release that it picked up viewers in the 16-39 and 25-54 year demographics, which is what the exercise is all about.

A good win for Willoughby which is still wondering if The Block is dying. The answer? Call The Apprentice, fire someone. Sorry that’s part of the upcoming plot.

Peter Fray

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