I blame Simon Cowell

By: Mark Williams

Date: 6 July 2010

So the new series of Dragons’ Den starts on 14 July on BBC2. Well, let me tell you where I am… I’m out, if I’m honest.

For those who don’t know – and if my Wikipedia serves me well – this will be the eighth series of the Evan Davis-hosted show, which was first broadcast on 4 January 2005. The Sony-owned format is based on the original Japanese series and it has proved a hit around the world.

Contestants who lack funding, yet believe they have a good business idea, get the chance to present to five successful entrepreneurs (the “Dragons”), in the hope they will invest their money, time and expertise. If contestants don’t raise the money they require from one or more Dragons, they leave empty-handed. In exchange for investment, the Dragons receive equity, the percentage of which is open to negotiation (they usually want much more).

Obviously, part of the Dragons’ role is to expose non-viable ideas and shortcomings (great and small) in the entrepreneurs’ thinking. Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind. If done properly, it gives someone with a badly thought-out idea the chance to go away and reconsider. Better to save money or not waste any more on an idea that’s doomed to failure.

My problem is – to the great detriment of the show – more recent series of the Dragons’ Den have seen some of the Dragons take ridiculing of the entrepreneurs to new depths. I used to enjoy watching earlier series, but why now is there the need to be so aggressive and insulting – even if ideas aren’t viable? What purpose does it serve?

The answer? Well, it makes for good TV – or at least it’s supposed to. It’s the type of thing you see every week on X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent (sic), where TV audiences are treated to the modern day freak show spectacle of the talentless and deluded being encouraged to humiliate themselves for ‘our’ entertainment. Then, of course, they suffer further ridicule at the tongue of Simon Cowell and others, before finally being booted off back into obscurity.

Restricted as it is, is this really the type of thing we want from business programming? Go down this route too much and the value of Dragons’ Den and other entrepreneurial programmes is severely diminished.

There’s no doubt that successful people, such as those who sit in judgement on Dragons’ Den, have much to teach other would-be entrepreneurs. So why relegate their role to little more than pantomime villain? Let’s have more insight and less sarcasm. Let’s not allow the balance to tip too much in the favour of ‘entertainment’ at the expense of education.

And I’m not just taking a cheap pop at the BBC. At least the Beeb is making programmes for the small-business community. The recent series of Mary Queen of Shops has been excellent – and you don’t have to run a small retail business to benefit from the knowledge Ms Portas shares while trying to help ailing small firms to get out of the ‘brown sticky stuff’.

Famously, of course, she is credited with successfully transforming the fortunes of Harvey Nichols during the recession of the early Nineties. Mary certainly displays the patience of a saint while trying to convince others – from bakers to hairdressers – to follow her recommendations. Rarely, if ever, has she lost her rag or resorted to ridicule.

In May I was similarly impressed by High Street Dreams (another Beeb production), in which hugely successful fragrance entrepreneur Jo Malone gave the benefit of her experience to small-scale producers looking to make it big. Once again, the tone was advisory rather than antagonistic, which made for a much more valuable and enjoyable viewing experience.

I care little for so-called ‘talent’ programmes or for those who appear or sit in judgement on them. I know these things are popular and they attract ratings. But please, when it comes to business advice programmes, let’s focus on advice and ease off on the mockery. Cowell’s already won the ratings war hands down.

Mark Williams, Start Up Donut editor


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