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Trump U.

The Donald's Apprentice towers in the ratings, but does the "reality" show have anything to teach viewers and students about the business world?

Published April 13, 2004

[Times illustration: Rossie Newson]

Ask Darlene Henwood and she'll tell you with little hesitation: She's a big fan of Donald Trump's business-based reality show, The Apprentice.

Considering that she's studying for her master's in business administration at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, Henwood knows her TV obsession might raise a few eyebrows.

A number of professors and management consultants already have denounced the show for its facile view of the business world and Trump's heavy-handed dismissal of contestants with the curt catchphrase, "You're fired!"

But Henwood, 28, says she learned important business lessons from the show, in which two teams of contestants face a series of challenges to win a $250,000-per-year job with one of the Donald's companies.

"Who would have thought you could make that much money selling lemonade in Times Square or putting ads on rickshaws?" said Henwood, describing challenges that earned the top teams $1,200 (flirtatious ladies selling lemonade for as much as $5 a cup) and $3,680 (selling ads on the back of rickshaw-style "pedicabs").

"The girls that did T-shirts with ribbons on them . . . it cost them $2 to make and they made, like, $600," she added, describing a challenge in which team Versacorp sold cobbled-together T-shirts at a flea market. "There's just this general feeling you get from the show that there's money to be made out there - you just have to find a way to do it."

From the moment The Apprentice hit the airwaves, some business experts fretted about its message.

There are the challenges based on inane, unrelated tasks that somehow are supposed to unearth leadership skills. There's hopelessly general feedback from Trump that leaves contestants with no idea how he's picking winners (one woman was fired for admitting her team got snookered during a challenge. What's the message there: Never tell the boss the truth?)

The head scratching continued last week, when Trump was shown rejecting favored contestant Amy Henry - whom USA Today picked as the likely winner in February - and overconfident Xerox salesman Nick Warnock to make do-nothing Harvard MBA holder Kwame Jackson and cigar-selling entrepreneur Bill Rancic the show's two finalists.

The choices, which elevated Jackson over two contestants who seemed to have more success in the challenges and show more leadership skills, left even more doubt over how Trump is picking the winner - to be announced Thursday during a live, two-hour finale.

And there's the Donald himself: a son of wealth inexplicably held up as an example of self-made success, showing off his gaudy, gold-plated offices, expansive yacht and sprawling summer home while giving contestants little or no clue how to match his achievements. It's yet to be seen how he'll spin recent claims by auditors that his self-named casino chain is close to bankruptcy.

Still, Trump has seen his personal stock pushed into the stratosphere by the success of the show, now NBC's third highest-rated program behind Friends and ER. .

Clearly enjoying the attention, he has appeared on cell-phone commercials, countless talk shows and other NBC programs such as Today, Dateline NBC and Saturday Night Live, savoring publicity that's money in the bank for a guy whose business empire is centered on his personal fame.

Like Michael Douglas' high-powered stockbroker Gordon Gekko in the 1987 film Wall Street, Trump has become the symbol of a generation's business success.

Regardless of the truth.

"I'm not sure there's anything marvelous about this guy other than he came from wealth and he continues to propagate it," said Ronald Hill, dean of USF St. Petersburg's College of Business and one of Henwood's teachers. "I don't see great vision, and I don't see great responsibility to his employees. He represents a narcissistic leader who does everything to benefit his best interests - regardless of how it might impact others."

True enough, The Apprentice has made an impact on campuses. Its success in drawing young viewers has inspired a course at the University of Washington in Seattle and a Web site by a student at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, to discuss ethical issues raised by the show.

But the reaction may not be what NBC or Trump anticipates, judging by the response among a group of students and teachers gathered recently at the University of Tampa's John H. Sykes College of Business to screen clips from The Apprentice.

"All men are alike," snorted MBA student Wendy Plant, watching Trump buddy up to New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner during the show's visit to team headquarters, as both men complimented each business team's "pretty girls."

"It's like we've gone back in time, or something."

Given the way contestants shift responsibility for failure to their project leaders, professor Glen Taylor suggested changing the show's title to The Apprentice: The Blame Game.

"I don't think the emphasis is on leading . . . it's on winning, which can be two different things," said Taylor, who noted "quite a few" of his students watch the show. "It's each against all, and other people are there only as a means to an end. Trump sees himself as a winner, Steinbrenner is a winner. . . . It doesn't matter if he's a son of a b--."

Consultant and life coach Birgit Zacher Hanson helped organize the April 1 viewing as a way to discuss the corrosive effect of blame-shifting while noting that the episode - in which Protege project manager Kristi Frank was shown the door after failing to profit at a flea market - revealed how poor leadership doomed the team.

"In this show, you win if the leader loses . . . that's why they end up doing rather destructive things to their team sometimes," said Hanson, who admires Trump's directness and savvy in featuring cronies on the show but laments his inability to mentor effectively. "Trump keeps saying you're a born leader, but I don't believe that. . . . A lot of leadership is about skill development, which you never see (on the show)."

And though some sneer at the idea that an entertainment-focused TV show can teach real lessons about business, corporate executive and management consultant Deborrah Himsel has already written a book on fictional mob boss Tony Soprano's acumen (he's aggressive about new opportunities, provides immediate feedback, lets employees know where they stand and uses dialogue to manage conflict, for example).

Now, the author of Leadership Sopranos Style helps analyze each Apprentice episode for USA Today. And there's a lot Himsel doesn't like, starting with Trump's trademark, "You're fired!" (with trademark, in-your-face hand flip).

"We have worked so hard, especially with all of the recent downsizing, to make (getting fired) a dignified process," she said. "I would hate for people to get the impression that you just twitch your finger and send somebody out the door."

Himsel also said the show can perpetuate stereotypes, showing women using sex appeal to triumph and a black contestant using race-baiting arguments to shut down opponents.

"You think people are able to separate reality from entertainment . . . then we hear about (executives who say) they want all their salespeople to watch The Apprentice . . . (and) I get a little nervous," she said. "But at least people are talking about workplace issues now. Television does create a vehicle where you can see right there on the screen what works and what doesn't."

Of course, when talk turns to reality TV, there's always the question of what viewers don't see.

Given the control reality producers exert over their product - splicing together events that may have occurred at separate times, casting to maximize the potential for conflict - viewers do well to wonder if they're seeing what really happened.

(One fired contestant, Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth, claimed that producers didn't show another contestant hurling a racial epithet at her. She also claimed producers told her to plead her case by heading into the show's infamous boardroom before other contestants arrived and tearfully confronting Trump.)

"It's not reality, it's reality TV," Hanson said.

But don't tell Rob LaPlante that some viewers scoff at the show's claims of realism. LaPlante, 28, heads casting and serves as a producer on The Apprentice; his challenge is to find a cast for next season that satisfies notoriously demanding executive producer Mark Burnett (reportedly, more than 800 people showed for open auditions in South Florida on March 25).

"I've had MBAs tell me this show is like business school on fast-forward," said LaPlante, sounding a little like a salesman himself. "Over and over, the CEOs I've interviewed tell me how much their office talks about this show. This tells me there is a realism to this show that exceeds what everyone wanted it to be."

LaPlante, who also helps Burnett cast his other shows (Survivor, The Contender), denied that contestants such as the race-baiting Stallworth or cat-napping Sam Solovey were chosen for their abrasiveness or somehow directed by producers.

"People gravitate toward character . . . (and) you need people for America to root for," he said. "The people who apply for this show are not your typical reality show applicants. They aren't waiters or personal trainers (a.k.a., out-of-work actors). They want this show for the job, not the fame. A lot of people say to me, point-blank, they would prefer if this was not on TV."

Still, Apprentice contestants have been sparring in the press for weeks. In addition to Stallworth's incendiary charge, fired contestant Katrina Campins said odds-on favorite Amy Henry slept with two male contestants. Others have basked in the media attention while juggling discussions of book, endorsement and TV deals.

As usual in reality TV, what people say and what they do often are wildly different.

That's what concerns Joe McCann, dean of the Sykes business school, who sees the impact the show has on his students and the culture.

"It's almost a feudal model of leadership . . . (violating) about every prevailing leadership model in organizations today," McCann said. "The undergraduates, I think it fills them with fear, (saying) "This is what I have to aspire to?' The MBAs and people with experience . . . they think it's a hoot. They view it as a joke."

Hanson agreed The Apprentice may be a business-oriented reality show for those who don't really know the business world.

But USF student Henwood said she saw some realistic moments on The Apprentice, including the strain of dealing with high-maintenance team members and the ways in which some women use sex appeal to their advantage.

Even now, when group assignments don't go well, her classmates joke about sending certain people "back into the boardroom."

But contrary to the Mack Daddy vibe conjured by the show whenever Trump appears on screen, Henwood said she sees The Apprentice star as a parody of himself: odd appearance, offhand sexism and self-promoting extravagance included.

"He's more like a character, with the bad hair and all," she said. "I think people just find him funny."


The Apprentice two-hour finale airs live at 9 p.m. Thursday on NBC, WFLA-Ch. 8. A repeat of last week's episode airs at 8 p.m. Wednesday.

[Last modified April 13, 2004, 12:18:07]

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