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Dragon's Den to Apprentice: Why India needs business reality TV shows

By Shravan Bhat

Indian reality TV to me means Roadies, Emotional Atyachaar, Splitsvilla and Bigg Boss. The shows have huge fan followings and, obviously, make for good TV. We love seeing large bald men shouting at hapless small-town aspirants, cringe worthy audition failures and the changes in expressions when more than one contestant is to be eliminated in an episode.

But reality TV can serve a better purpose. Around the world, a number of business reality TV shows have enjoyed success because they put people in situations many of us can relate to; we all have jobs and we all have bosses. There's a lot to learn from a well-designed business TV show.

Here are three such shows that could succeed in India if executed well.

1. Dragon's Den.

This is perhaps the ultimate adrenaline rush for hopeful start-ups: pitch for an equity investment into your business to five multi-millionaire investors on live TV. No pressure! The hugely successful show has been reincarnated with prominent local business people everywhere from Afghanistan to Australia, though the original idea came from Japan. Hopeful entrepreneurs have a few minutes to convince skeptical tycoons that their business is worthy of capital injection straight out of their pockets. Though more often than not, the more zany businesses get destroyed by the 'Dragons' (which make for "good TV"), a couple of real gems are unearthedevery episode.

I remember watching the UK edition, where Theo Paphitis, the retail (stationery) mogul, invested in an outstanding high school student who created an innovative file using a single piece of plastic and two magnets. The kid has already found a supplier to mass produce in China and talked to high-street retailers about stocking. After grilling him for 15 minutes, Paphitis shook hands on a deal that saw him inject tens of thousands of pounds into the fledgling entrepreneur.

 Dragons Den to Apprentice: Why India needs business reality TV shows

The Apprentice already has an avatar with Indian contestants - The Apprentice Asia, hosted by Tony Fernandes.

What sets the show apart is the range of backgrounds in the Den. Each investor has an area of expertise and depending on which sector the entrepreneur comes from, the investor will ask tough questions to get to the bottom of the business idea. Things really get interesting when Dragons get into bidding wars with each other and make multiple "take it or leave it" offers to the entrepreneur on the spot.

With the number of start-ups coming up in India - especially social ventures - led by confident, well educated people, I have no doubt a few good entrepreneurs would get connected to senior mentorship. And the rest, well, would get cut down to size.

2. The Apprentice

Possibly the best known business reality TV show, The Apprentice already has an avatar with Indian contestants - The Apprentice Asia, hosted by AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes.

It's another successful show that has seen localised formats from Brazil to Belgium. Young - and often highly educated - professionals battle against each other in teams each week to execute tasks assigned to them. Each week, one is eliminated until only one remains to 'apprentice' for the mogul in his/her own company.

It is a rather intense, melodramatic job interview and the more outlandish tasks make for great viewing.

In the UK edition, hosted by Lord Alan Sugar, during an assignment to sell gourmet pizzas the project manager decided to buy 100 large chickens to use as toppings for 100 pizzas. You can do the math in your head. It was ridiculous overestimation that came back to bite him in the boardroom later. By the end of the process, successful candidates have organised fashion shows and sold Lamborghinis - the more outlandish the tasks, the bigger the spills.

The show has been attempted in India before but never took off. It hinges, of course, on a charismatic, flamboyant business tycoon to host it and 'fire' contestants each week. Anyone who has seen the suave Tony Fernandes on AXN, cutting through contestant's excuses and picking the bones out of a business plan will know what I mean. In India the person who fits the bill best is Vijay Mallya - getting him or someone like him on board is crucial.

3. Undercover Boss

This would be, without a doubt, the best in terms of PR, of the three shows. Undercover Boss has been done in Europe, the USA and Australia and would lend itself very well to an emerging market like India if it made some subtle changes. The show gives the CEOs/owners of large corporations a makeover so that they are unrecognizable and places them in entry-level or blue-collar jobs within their own company.

The camera crew follow the bosses around under the pretence of filming a training video. The exercise is designed to help them understand their business from the ground up, engage with employees on the 'floor' and give them a sense of perspective.

I remember an episode where the head of Burger King was taught how to make a Whopper and realized how hard it is to churn out burgers in a hot kitchen. The enduring lesson from most episodes is that CEOs need to understand their employees problems and take care of their needs. The undercover bosses do three different jobs within their companies where they meet managers and employees, both good and bad. There are heart warming tales of single mothers who have sacrificed everything and there are shocking store managers who sexually harass their workers - including, inadvertently, the multimillionaire head of the company.

For the show to work in India one would need to forego the promoter for a younger VP or function head, someone who could blend in to a factory environment with other, young or middle aged workers. Every episode ends with the boss exposing his true identity at a large company gathering and embarrassing the employees he's worked with. What usually ensues is a cheesy montage where he calls in good workers to reward them with holidays or gifts and bad employees who he fires.

It's a chance for corporations to show they are human and genuine, even though the exercise seems fairly scripted.

Shravan Bhat writes for Forbes India

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Updated Date: Dec 20, 2014 22:16:15 IST