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(NOTE: The original post was written January 23, 2007. There are updates by date below the original post.

I must also note that as of March 25, the show has thankfully returned to some of its former glory. But the original post still holds for prior episodes.)

Donald Trump has taken a perfectly good reality show and turned it into a trash heap. Now I know there are many who look down on reality shows in general and certainly The Apprentice has its detractors even among the faithful, but the show was based on a clever idea bolstered by the powerful persona of Trump. A winning formula. True…its ratings were sagging and some tweaking was certainly called for, but this year’s offering borders on offensive.

With all respect, Mr. Trump, young people watch this show and actually view it as Business 101 – and in some ways, it used to be. But this year, it’s a lesson that can be skipped. One comment from a college student I found on an Apprentice website basically said that she loved the show this year because she enjoyed watching the losers suffer. Is that really the classy lesson you want to show?

For those of you who don’t watch, The Apprentice selects people from top-ranked schools and/or those who excel in their field. These people then compete against each other, week after week, with their eyes on the prize of becoming an apprentice in Trump’s company. The viewer gets to see two teams compete against each other in a task such as creating a new product for a well-known company. Some of these tasks have really been fun to watch. A young person – or anyone – could learn a lot by seeing the importance of things like listening, planning, cooperation, delegating, carrying your share of the work, etc.

While each season wasn’t equally great, we were almost always left with a remnant semiotic image of a positive, hard-working business environment. We felt good about what we were seeing and usually, at the very least, admired the determination and principles of those who succeeded. And, like him or hate him in real life, we couldn’t help liking Trump on screen.

So what changed? So far this year, we’ve seen the losing team forced to live outdoors in tents while winners reside in luxury conditions. Many of us would have loved seeing the losing team rally and win to get to the goodies, but when the losing tream lost again, all we got to see is what happens to people when they are treated as losers. Perhaps an example for managers of the importance of positive vs. negative rewards in motivation and performance?

And, for the first time, after their second win, the winners were exempted from the next challenge, while the “losers” had to compete against each other. It was a pitiful performance and totally uninteresting to the viewer. Meanwhile, we got to watch the “winners” just lounging around soaking up the sun in their luxury surroundings.

Now I am hoping that the producers and Trump are building to some wonderful turnaround or at least something interesting, but I am concerned with the semiotic message we have been left with: losers deserve to be stomped on and winners deserve all the rewards without having to keep working. I’m not saying this is the entire lesson Trump wants us to see, but that’s the feeling we are left with at the end of the day.

Semiotics http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semiotics tells us that meaning can be communicated at different levels that may not all be apparent at first thought. In a fairly lengthy speech he gave when Michelle quit on the show that aired 1/21/07, Trump pulled no punches when he told her there is never a reason for quitting and that she was damaging her whole life by making this choice. While I agree that quitting is not something to take lightly and Trump was offering some good advice at the core, the underlying circumstances and the way he went off on her left a not-so-pleasant taste in our mouths. Semiotics would tell us that the remnant effect goes beyond the words themselves. And that’s the problem with this season’s show so far.

If you just think about the individual components from a distance, it kind of makes sense. But as we are seeing it unfold in front of our eyes, it just feels mean and kind of icky. We’re being told it’s about hard work being rewarded, but we are left with the remnant images of lazy winners and trampled losers. Not something that most of us want to tune into. And definitely not the message we want to send to thirsty young minds ready to enter the business world.

Sure…business is tough and sometimes mean. But Mr. Trump…we used to leave feeling good. And now we don’t. And that’s the message I want to convey to you.

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Updated February 12th: After watching two more episodes, I have to say the L.A. version of the show isn’t solely radiating mean any more – even with the Fear Factor element of live bees and the continued banishment to Tent City for the losers (similar to Survivor) – but it still misses the mark. This preposterous pastiche of Apprentice meets Survivor (and this week it met Fear Factor) is just too muddled for my taste. Almost too much of everything squeezed into one messy hour. Sometimes more is less, Mr. Trump!

I don’t know about you, but I’ve found this season’s production values to be far below that of past shows. Is it the L.A. smog that keeps it from being sharp? We don’t get to focus enough on the way the teams pull together the elements of the tasks. It used to be like a fun Marketing 101 because we really got to see the way pricing, sales, promotion, and branding were handled and how that resulted in a win or loss. And now the glimpse we do get of all that leaves us feeling like these people don’t know much about business. Could that actually be the case this season or is it just what we’re being shown? But then I remember Arrow’s one win with the El Pollo Loco product and that was a result of solid marketing. Wha happened guys??? Are your brains in layback mode? Did the L.A. smog hit again? (By the way, this New Yorker happens to get a kick out of L.A. and think this year’s show doesn’t capture the real flavor or do it justice.)

I was almost hopeful when they showed us Donald Trump at a seminar in Minnesota telling us “Love what you do!” That’s a great message and the kind he used to use to tie into the task and result. Sappy, but cohesive. But this time…well the only ones who seemed to love what they did (or each other) were a few members of Arrow, and they lost again. And they certainly don’t love Tent City. (Nor do I.)

So as we see Nicole almost burst into tears at the thought of being back out in the yard in a tent “living like dogs”, I’m wondering what message are they sending us? “Losing sucks?” Well..duh!

But where’s the positive image we also used to get about the art of business, Mr. Trump? Are you really loving doing this any more?? It sure doesn’t feel like it.

And then, in the Board Room when you basically rip Aaron a new one for not having spoken up at the prior Board Room – that seemed totally unnecessary. He could have been fired for being a bad project manager, which he was. I would have fired him for his inability to lead and delegate – if we had gotten to hear all those details in the board room, that is. But for being quiet?

The NBC website calls him “The Adapter” when it tells us he was fired. Oooh…now that’s a bad quality. Like Bill and Kelly and the others haven’t had to adapt to the Trump culture in the real world? Like you aren’t asking professionals with top credentials to “adapt” to living in a tent when they lose? All such mixed messages – like the show this year.

I want to add one thing more about this season’s show. I think we aren’t getting enough of the backstory of each team’s efforts because we no longer have Carolyn and George. They were like your eyes and ears and always let us know valuable business elements that contributed to the outcome. We just aren’t getting that level of professional scrutiny – although Ivanka at times has made some astute comments.

But this year there is something very wrong and there isn’t any one reason. All I know is that I’m left with a bad taste afterwards that has nothing to do with “killer” bees or Kinetic’s unappetizing recipe for El Pollo Loco. Rather than a lively competition among dynamic competitors digging into some truly interesting marketing challenges…we basically see incompetence and punishment. And that leaves me cold – semiotically and otherwise.

February 18 – I just finished watching tonight’s episode and I have little to add to my previous comments. The show continues to suffer from its L.A. malaise.

As I was watching, I kept wondering what’s missing – not a sign that I was captivated. I realized that a lot of the task preparation we’ve gotten to see this season is aimed mostly at letting us see what’s not working and why the person might be fired, rather than letting us into the planning process. Oh…we always saw the problem stuff, but this year it isn’t balanced by much else. I think those extra minutes now go to the “Vote for who should be sent to Tent City” interludes. Boring. Hey…can we vote for Trump’s kids? (Uh oh. Now they’ve got me channeling mean. Mea culpa.)

So…tonight Aimee was sent home, crying wee wee wee all the way home. Or rather “they they they”. My favorite moment was in the Board Room when she said that these people weren’t the same team that worked so well for Heidi. Gee Aimee..I wonder what was different. Don’t think too hard.

So that’s about it for today. Oh…except that Surya is a marked man. Not that he isn’t bright. He just needs to brush up on people skills – and a bit more maturity wouldn’t hurt either. I once worked with someone a lot like him who, after some gentle guidance and a bit of ear-cuffing, developed into a good manager. But shows like this don’t let us see much of the good stuff – the cameras and editing like to create people for us to dislike and want to vote off. So, as I said…he’s a marked man.

March 5 – OK. This will be fairly short because I am rapidly losing my ability to focus on this show and admit I was doing other things last night while the show was on.

Despite my initial disgust with the “new improved” Apprentice, I am a hopeless optimist and kept thinking things would get better. And at the beginning of this latest episode (March 4), I actually thought my hopes were being fulfilled. They were giving us more of the oh-so-critical work process. We got to see a lot more of what went on during the discussions and implementation of the events. And we could clearly understand why one team, Arrow, did so much better.

But forget all that. What I want to talk about is Derek’s “bonus” firing. When did it become dangerous to voice a couple of words like “white trash”? Sure…Derek didn’t do a great job of standing up for himself and he clearly missed the mark when it came to selling the Lexus luxury image with go-karts – but they all went for it in a kind of weary malaise. But to fire Derek for the words rather than his performance is ridiculous!

Derek used the words with an ill-timed attempt at humor – aimed at himself, in this case. If these words in particular offend Mr. Trump. then he should have simply told Derek he doesn’t appreciate that language. But to lash out at him and fire him for that puts everyone on guard in a way that feels kind of creepy.

And speaking of creepy, the way Mr. Trump first told Surya to speak up in the Board Room and then kept looking disgusted when he spoke was extremely uncomfortable. It’s obvious Mr. Trump has had it with him and he certainly isn’t coming across well when we watch his task performance, but since we are being taught the lesson of watching how we act in the Board Room, couldn’t the one in charge show some of that same civility?

Power is one thing, but true class is knowing how to wield it with grace. But then I guess if he did that, we wouldn’t watch. Oh…but then again, many aren’t any more.

March 14: I just can’t bring myself to write much about this episode. The show is still not very exciting, although at least we got to see more of the tasks and what thinking/planning went into them. These are not the sharpest – or most creative – teams by any means! Man…the winning event was still pretty lame. Even the GNC exec was clearly underwhelmed in his praise. Surya was a marked man and it was no surprise he was ousted. Poor guy. Someone needs to give him a dollar to buy a clue. Not that he was a good leader, but the cameras really focused on every flaw. And Trump treated him way differently in the Board Room than this week’s winning team leader. So he’s gone. Buh bye! Now let’s see what Arrow does now to prove the problem was him and not them.

March 18 – Muna was oblivious to her many short-comings within this task (as well as the others) and certainly appears not to be Apprentice material, but I’m not sure she was the most culpable for this loss. Kristine made some really bad decisions and, when all is said and done, as project manager she was the main reason the task failed. Kristine didn’t even bother to oversee production or see how the footage was coming out. And what about the others? They all heard and saw what was happening. Why didn’t anyone speak up then? During the shoot if they saw how bad the footage was they could still have reshot or better yet, recast. Were they so unwilling to deal with Muna getting mad? Since when does a strong manager let fear of a grumbling employee lead her whole team to bad decisions?

And once they were all actually looking at the footage during editing and saw how bad it was, they tried to fix it by cutting out things, but the footage they kept was still crap and left out important branding shots. Out of these 4 potential leaders of business, couldn’t someone stand up and say “This is unusable! It doesn’t meet the task challenge. We have to do something major NOW!” If they didn’t see it, then I question their judgment. If they did see it, then where is their daring and creative spark? They could still have cut sound and done a narration. Or they could have added cards and made it a silent soap. At least TRY! But everyone just took it so passively.

And then in the Board Room, I never saw such equivocating. I know they wanted to come out of the Soft Scrub challenge looking clean, but this is the Apprentice. People have to step up and speak their minds – and people do get fired.

Please don’t get me wrong…I know this is really hard and I could see they didn’t want to be hurtful and I respect that. Although in this case they also really wanted Muna out. So were they maybe being just a little two-faced? It’s certainly not something I myself could ever enjoy doing. But let’s be honest, Kinetic…it’s what you signed up for! At least stand up for what you believe.

Note: I realize that this post, for the first time this season, was about the task and the teams – because this episode finally gave us enough of the process to understand what went wrong and what went right. The way I like it. The way it used to be. I just want to make sure I mention that. Less screaming in an outdoor shower would be nice, of course. Hopefully next season – assuming there is one – we can get back to basics. And maybe next year – a few more creative types please? It would be fun to see some really good task outcomes again. It’s been so dull this season creatively, I even miss the Bedazzler.

March 26: Finally. A good episode. One that was about the task as well as the types of behaviors and politics that come up in real business.

First…the initial task. It was simple and strikes at the heart of business. No, I don’t mean selling passes at Universal Studios Hollywood. I mean Arrow’s Project Leader, James, had to send one person to the now-on-a-losing-streak Kinetic in order to re-balance the teams.

Nicole screamed bloody murder at being chosen. How could James do that to her? She saw herself as one of the strongest team members. Yet James assessed her to be superfluous, since he felt other teammates could do what she does – probably better. And he felt she could NOT contribute some key skills those he kept could.

Although James delivered the message as a pure resource allocation issue, Nicole went into total BLAME mode. And the biggest object of her dis-affection became Tim – her once beloved. As she walked over to join Kinetic, we could almost hear her channeling the Wicked Witch of the West ” I’ll get you my pretty!”

OK. We all get that she was hurt. I understand that she wanted Tim to rise to her defense – and he just kept playing the game. Better for her to have found out who Tim is and that, as much fun as they were having, Tim is still in it to win. That’s what the game is about. And quite honestly, it was Nicole that forgot that. She let herself get involved during this game and then expected a competitor to come to her rescue. Where was her business head in all of this? She showed her real self in her emotion-based expectations as well as in the vehemence of her revenge – and she proved herself not to be the best potential Apprentice for Trump.

He needs a strong leader with business savvy – not someone who lets herself get thrown by emotions at this stage of the competition. So if she has anyone to blame – it should be herself. And I think the writing is on the wall for her now. No way Trump can choose her now – no matter how well she fights for herself. And she is for sure a real scrapper!

As for her idea…it wasn’t bad. Just not right under the circumstances. They didn’t have enough people to do it right, meaning combining the roller skaters with a solid kiosk business presence. But at least she showed creativity. Sadly, she also showed her fangs.

And that gets me to Angela and why I agree she was the one to let go. Angela Angela Angela! In the Board Room your biggest argument was that Nicole was so passionate about her idea (and her need for vengeance) and so high-energy, that no one could control her. Hello! A good project leader’s job is to do just that. So Angela was her own undoing. She didn’t control Nicole and she didn’t redirect the creative energy into a well-managed task. It was very catch-as-catch can. Not a good sales plan nor a winning methodology. So as much as Trump likes her background, Angela was not ready to step up to be a top business leader – yet. Trump was right. (Geez…I’ve said that more than usual. But in this case – as well as with his dating advice – he was right.)

And now a word about business. While I am not a big fan of doing things just to be mean (like the whole awful premise of some of this season’s changes), this is after all a competition to pick someone who could thrive in the Trump organization. Ruthless business tactics – as Frank pointed out – is fair game. As long as it’s legal. Kinetic was a bunch of whiners. “They were mean to us!” “They tried to take our business!” “They stole business right out from under us.” What are you doing on this show if you think business is about being a goody-two shoes? Now I personally happen to be on the good-two-shoes side of thinking – and that’s why I would never DREAM of being on the show. But if they think Donald Trump wants people who would back off from a deal just because it might border on being too rough or overly aggressive – well they are sadly mistaken.

I see Kinetic fading into the distance fast – despite Trump’s favoritism and possible desire to find a strong female Apprentice. Someone on Kinetic better step up soon into the tougher-skinned reality of the real estate business. And I don’t mean Nicole’s revenge-based toughness, because working from emotion just dulls your business smarts. (Uh…that includes your too-little too-late loyalty to Nicole, Tim. That talk in the bushes was not what Trump would want from a leader on his team. And neither would the rest of Arrow.)

And so…I end by saying at last we have a show again. I hope it holds up.

April 1 – Ironically an episode about a new mouthwash called Smartmouth resulted in a loss by someone with a mouth that proved not so smart after all.

I ended the last update mentioning Tim’s attempt to warn Nicole – his idea of loyalty – as too little too late. As far as Nicole was concerned, his furtive warning through the bushes was not going to undo the damage he did by not defending her when James picked her to go to Kinetic. And, more to the point, that one misstep did irreparable damage to his chances on the show by alienating his teammates – he certainly wasn’t being loyal to them. Despite his protests of innocence, Tim was trying to play both sides at once and in a competition like this, that only waters down your image to all and leaves a bad taste in everyone’s mouth – including Mr. Trump. So in the end, Tim was his own undoing.

Once again, thankfully, I must say this was a good episode – fun to watch on all levels. Kudos to Kinetic for a really nice job on the task. This was far and away the most creative and well-executed task result of the otherwise mostly lackluster season. Looks like Nicole, Heidi, and Kristine really gelled on this assignment. The supplement was attractive and product-savvy. A real home run. Finally! I wonder if James is wishing he kept Nicole and gave up Tim.

As for Tim’s self-defense in the Board Room, once again his mouth was not so smart. He kept talking about retaining loyalty to his teammate (Nicole) after she left for Kinetic. If he were a little smarter, he’d have realized that not only would Trump see that as a continuation of bad choices under the scrutiny of a televised competition, but why would Trump want to hire someone who indicates he’d still stay loyal to a fellow Trump employee who went to a competing firm? Could you imagine Donald Trump seeing his employee leaning through the bushes in one of his developments whispering to a former Trump employee? I think not. In this case, not-so-smart mouth meets the semiotics of stupid.

April 9 – Wow! We finally have a good show again. Now THIS is The Apprentice I’ve been missing.

I’ve therefore decided to stop blogging on this since my whole reason for starting in the first place was to protest the awful changes. Now that there is no more stupid Tent City and the remaining candidates (all from the more down-to-earth Arrow) are a good final four – although Nicole was a bit of a surprise – I honestly don’t care which one wins. I wish them all good luck. I’m just glad the show is finally fun again.

And yes…this last episode was one huge commercial for Donald Trump and his ego…but for anyone who follows Mr. Trump’s career, what isn’t? I’m not a fan of his “bigger is better” philosophy of architecture, but the man sure knows how to sell an idea. I hope he also now knows what doesn’t work for the show. And I’m definitely looking forward to the last episodes.

Final thoughts: OK…here’s my confession. I’m secretly rooting for Frank. I kind of assume he won’t be The Apprentice, but I think he would be a great addition to Trump’s real-life construction/development team (as Don Jr. basically said.)

And thus ends my regular blogging for The Apprentice L.A. Thanks for the chance to vent.

April 22 – Stefani was just chosen as the Apprentice. A GREAT choice. She has it all – and quite honestly will do well around Trump BECAUSE she is able to succeed while staying just behind him under the radar rather than needing the spotlight at all times. (We know who does need the spotlight in that company.) I think Stefani is one smart cookie. But I’ll miss Frankie. (-;