Let’s get this out of the way early doors: I cannot stand any form of reality TV. To my mind any sort of art (and entertainment television most definitely is an artform) should be performed/created by the most talented people. That is why I would prefer to look at a Picasso hung on my wall (alas I have no such thing) than my own paintings, or why I read Steven King novels but not fifty shades of grey. It is also why I don’t own a single black eyed peas song.
Reality TV takes this theory and flips it. Rather than a comedy or drama, where incredible actors bring to life characters developed by brilliant writers and directors, we instead are treated to idiots being exploited by evil geniuses behind the scenes. Whether it is Simon Cowell, or the Big Brother production team devising wicked tasks to infuriate their menagerie, or Ant & Dec (who I am convinced are actually the malevolent puppermasters and not the marionettes they pretend to be. Quite machiavellian ), there is someone in the background/foreground who plucks people from the streets and makes them dance for an audience in exchange for the promise of relatively mediocre financial reward and a fleeting taste of fame, where they alternate between being photographed while overweight and releasing an exercise DVD in time for Christmas. It is necessary to pick the most ordinary, stupid and pliable people for these shows because the intelligent people among us are likely to rebel against the stupid regimes they find themselves in. Or worse, they succeed and thus remove the drama and conflict from the shows.
The BBC has, for the most part, tried to avoid embracing this format to the same extent as most of its competitors. Unfortunately they know as well as anyone else that the moral high ground can be a lonely place and when you rely on entertaining millions of people for your continued existence you sometimes have to come down from your perch and embrace the vacuous format that you loath and everyone else loves. So they have produced a few shows to try and compete in this arena (albeit with a little bit more thought required than “would I like to eat kangaroo testicles?”).
First (not necessarily in chronological order) we have strictly come dancing. A thinly veiled popularity contest where celebrities are paid upfront to act like they care about going on a trip to Blackpool. The show takes celebrities from all walks of, well, celebrity and so we end up with athletes competing in a dance competition against professional dancers (say what you will, but if you’re in girls aloud, you’re basically a professional dancer in my eyes). It says something for the athletes’ talent and determination that the pop stars tend not to win.
Then we have the Apprentice. This is show is far worse because it takes people who honestly believe (and we are told to believe with them) that they are incredibly smart and capable individuals. If that genuinely was the case they wouldn’t have to jack off Alan Sugar on TV for the chance of a £100k job (one year only). In fact, most of them are loud-mouth idiots who are hugely confrontational and so desperate for “success” that they will happily fight to the death with one another for an opportunity they could probably get anyway if they really deserved it. Meanwhile we all watch on and think “well shit! If Alan Sugar is going to employ one of these fools, that must mean I’m even more amazing than I think!”
Finally, we have the subject matter of this post: Dragon’s Den. Ostensibly a display of venture capitalism at work, this is the absolute worst of all of its competing shows, both on the BBC and others. All the other shows exploit idiots. On other shows, the entrants are forced to exchange their dignity for a chance of fame. They are almost all idiots who believe that the world owes them a living and that this is best earned through a singing audition. Dragon’s Den does have a small sub-set of stupid entrants, the people who go on the show with an untested prototype that is neither good or original. But most of the entrants who make it on TV are not idiots. They may be intellectually limited, but I don’t think it’s fair to refer to someone as stupid when they have developed an invention or company that Banatyne and friends are interested enough in to consider investing. I can look away when I see idiots being exploited, but these people don’t deserve the treatment they receive. It takes a good amount of effort, thought and a bit of luck to get yourself to this stage.
However, here is where your luck runs out. You’ve worked hard enough to build up a business (or a product) that is making money, and you now decide to enter this tv quiz show (because people mistakenly consider it as such). If you are unlucky enough to win, you get to gift your business, your life’s work, to some billionaire wanker whose only goal is to make a big profit out of your endeavours.
Please don’t misunderstand me: I don’t hate people who work in finance (like myself), and I don’t hate venture capitalists. Those guys take big risks on unproven projects (like facebook before it had ad revenue and looked like a money pit) and are right to expect some reward for this chance that they have taken. But the dragons don’t invest like this. They wait for someone who comes to their den and tells them that they have already pre-sold 10,000 units to a “major un-named supermarket in the UK” and that the whole thing is not a risky proposition. This gets the dragons’ tails up, and suddenly they’re interested, but only if you are prepared to hand over half of the business for an amount of money that won’t even pay off your mortgage. Put simply, these wealthy people exploit intelligent but naïve inventors who seem to think that the only way to make a business work is to sell it to Deborah fucking Meaden. Fuck that. If you took your letter of intent from Asda to your local bank, they’d definitely give you a loan on that basis (not a guarantee, but I’m confident). That is how you finance expansion of a solid business plan. Venture capitalism is not required at this stage in a business’ lifecycle.
The other, massive issue that I have with this show is that the “contestants” are forced to memorise their business plan. “How many units did you sell in the 2009-10 financial year?” barks Theo Pathitis. The guy can’t remember, but maybe 150? Scowls all around from the dragons, while they write this down on their notepads (I see they aren’t forced to rely on their memories). This guy’s uncertainty makes them all nervous – he is not investment material. “How much profit did you make that year?” continues Theo. £10k? maybe. “So you made over £60 profit on each one of these novelty ovengloves?” snarls our dragon. Sounds unlikely.
The simple truth is that our poor contestant can’t possibly be expected to remember all these details and the dragons know this and are waiting to trip him up for their own amusement. I can’t imagine going to an investor meeting without a suitcase full of notes and back up information to draw upon. It doesn’t convey any reassurance that you can rely on your brain to recall all these figures – in the real world it makes you look like a disorganised fool who’s getting by on a wing and a prayer cos he left his notebook on the train.
But as we know, if people were allowed to enter the den well-prepared and organised, the conflict that the viewer craves cannot be manufactured. Instead you would have dry, boring meetings between accountants and nothing to make Theo scoff loudly (which we all love to hear). It’s much more exciting to watch someone’s hopes and dreams crash and burn than take flight.