Martha's New Show Is Criminal

NBC needs to apprentice in TV show planning.

By Steve Burgess 7 Oct 2005 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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NBC's The Apprentice has always claimed to be about learning important business lessons. Odd that the network's new double dose of the reality show flouts one of the most infamous examples in recent programming history.

Donald Trump remains on Thursday nights with Apprentice "classic," but it has been joined by a new Wednesday night version, starring jailbird Martha Stewart. If one is good, NBC has concluded, two must surely be better. In fact, why not go for four? ABC certainly did.

By now, the story of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire has become cautionary TV lore. Five years ago the ABC network was gifted with an out-of-the-blue ratings sensation as viewers embraced the return of the prime-time game show and made bland Regis Philbin a superstar. ABC responded like sailors on a spree. They scheduled Millionaire marathons almost every night of the week until that golden goose was cooked crispy. When the ratings collapsed, the network had no backup plan. Only now has it recovered with dramatic hits like Lost and Desperate Housewives. TV execs drew the programming lesson -- don't get greedy with a hit show.

Skipping class hurts

Well, some execs drew the lesson anyway. Apparently, the folks at NBC skipped class that year. With their troubled network replacing the resurgent ABC at the back of the pack, this season NBC decided to clone one of its few hits. Martha's unique combination of star power and notoriety made her a natural choice to expand the Apprentice franchise on to Wednesday nights. But early returns have been disappointing.

Watching the Martha Apprentice, it's not hard to see why. Despite the marked contrast between her cool, tasteful style and The Donald's tacky flash, the shows are identikit versions of each other. If you're watching both, it is genuinely hard to keep track of which back-stabbing weasel is stabbing which back on which show.

Then there's Martha herself. Her fans find her admirable, those who love to hate her find her sinister, and either image has potential for a show like this. But her turn on The Apprentice displays conclusively that competence is not charisma. Martha is flat. She is a fallen soufflé.

Cooking up a jail-free image

The introduction to the show featured a Martha voiceover in which did not even deign to mention the word "jail" or any of its colourful synonyms. Early on, it appeared that this Apprentice would be a thinly disguised image makeover for the Queen of Mean.

It can be argued that Stewart would have been unlikely to participate otherwise, but surely the producers of such a high-profile show had some leverage over their new employee. Playing up the dark side of Martha would have lent the show a much-needed shot of fun.

After all, the original Apprentice succeeded almost in spite of itself. There was no real evidence that Survivor impresario Mark Burnett and co. originally intended to take advantage of Trump's camp value as a pompous tycoon with ludicrous hair. And yet, that was at least part of the reason for the show's initial popularity.

School of randomness

The Apprentice can hardly be touted as some kind of new model business school. Quite the contrary -- the bumbling and betrayals of its contestants leave one aghast at the possibility that these people might really be a cross-section of America's best and brightest. The only practical lesson taught by The Apprentice is the thoroughly random nature of executive success.

The Apprentice has always been handicapped by the disconnect between content and result. That these treacherous stooges are supposed to be competing for a serious job in a major corporation always seems unlikely at best, frightening at worst. Reality shows work best when they create their own self-contained laboratories for the study of human behaviour, e.g. Survivor; or when the goal being sought is a believable one, e.g. America's Top Model. (It helps when you can cram a bunch of vicious teenage girls into an apartment for a rolling catfight. ANTM is still the most entertaining trash on TV.)

Reality shows need to start strong to gain momentum -- ideally, viewers will sign on early and following the cast of characters through their trial by fire. If they don't get onboard at the beginning they are less likely to pick up the saga halfway through.

Perfect hosts don't overkill

First ratings for Martha Stewart's Apprentice have been distinctly underwhelming for the Peacock Network. The first two episodes averaged fewer than seven million viewers (by comparison, ABC's smash hit Lost often draws in the low-to-mid 20 million range). Trump's version of the show has faded as well, although it is still stronger than Stewart's. In an ominous move for Martha, NBC moved the Wednesday night Apprentice back an hour to 9:00pm last week, putting it up against Lost. Some critics are predicting the show will be dropped before completing its run, although that seems unlikely.

In creating two Apprentices, NBC showed they're clearly desperate. Even so, they ought to have paused before cloning a show that was already in decline. Trump's edition of The Apprentice has never matched its splashy debut season. Now, the decline of the franchise will surely be hastened thanks to overkill.

Or maybe they'll do a third one with Regis Philbin. Winner gets to program NBC. I wish them luck.

Steve Burgess is The Tyee's entertainment critic apprentice.  [Tyee]

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