Broadcasting Business: The secrets of their success

Brits are not renowned for their entrepreneurial get-up-and-go. But we love reality TV shows about making money. Roly Keating explains how to drum up a national passion for business - by putting entertainment first
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The Independent Online

Britain, it appears, still doesn't seem to 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, we are seeing growing interest in business and enterprise from a broad spectrum of British society. Programmes such as 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, which returns to BBC Two tomorrow, is a show that gives budding entrepreneurs a chance to bid for real investment funds. It has many more younger viewers than is usual for its 8pm slot - 61 per cent are under 55 and 10 per cent are between 16 and 34, six points higher than the average. The Apprentice, which became one of the most talked-about shows on British UK, did even better, with 64 per cent under 55 and 11 per cent between 16 and 34.

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.

You can trace the roots of today's rebirth of business television to a 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 structured, 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, succeeded in bringing business programmes to mainstream audiences. He did it not by analysing 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.

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.

Today, these programmes are widely used by teachers to bring business theory alive to students. But they originally won a place in the 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.

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 to succeed. And if you do succeed, to make money.

I can reveal that we are also hoping to draw inspiration from those who've already made a lot of money.

In Millionaires' Challenge, which has just gone 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 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 it will 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.

Roly Keating, Controller of BBC Two, will speak at the Enterprise Britain Summit, which kicks off Enterprise Week today

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