When Mark Burnett, executive producer of CBS's Survivor, arrived in America from his native England in the '80s, one of his early jobs was selling T-shirts on Los Angeles' Venice Beach. That left him with plenty of time to read Donald Trump's autobiographical The Art of the Deal. Now, armed with a fistful of Emmy awards, the man who launched the reality-TV craze plans to put Trump to work for him in NBC's upcoming reality show The Apprentice.
Set to begin shooting in New York on Sept. 14, the show will feature as many as 20 contestants competing in business situations to see who'll win the coveted prize: The last person standing wins a year-long stint with a six-figure salary working for Trump Organization in New York City, where the most recent statistics cite a 9.2% unemployment rate.
While both Burnett and Trump decline to be specific about the challenges the contestants will face, they say the show will pit MBAs -- "sexy, young, and brilliant MBAs" -- against street-savvy people with no formal business education, "people in their 30s or 40s who have never gotten a break." There doesn't seem to be any shortage of either: In the first two days after the show was announced, NBC's Apprentice Web site received 30,000 visits -- "a deluge," says an NBC spokesperson.
"CLASS STRUGGLE." In the grand tradition of reality shows, the losers will almost certainly sniffle and snivel when they get the bad news. They'll get one consolation, however: Instead of hearing the word from a vacuous TV host or fellow contestants, they'll get it straight from The Donald (as ex-wife Ivana calls him). The ever-controversial and colorful Trump, who describes himself as the "busiest developer in New York City," isn't sure how much on-camera time he'll have. But, "I'll be exclusively involved in the firings," he says.
The type of stunt the show might employ: sending teams into retail outlets for a day to see which can make the bigger impact -- the steeple-fingered thinkers or the street-savvy scrappers. Competitors will also be placed in sensitive situations within Trump Organization to see how they handle office politics.
You can count on Burnett to be as intensely interested as the audience is in the outcome. "I didn't go to college, and I'm not doing so bad, am I?" he says. In fact, Burnett is betting that the uneducated contestant pool will have as much talent as the group of presumably unemployed MBAs. "It's a class struggle, really," says Burnett. "It will be interesting to see if the MBAs turn out to be not so brilliant, and some kid from a working-class swap meet turns out to be the really brilliant one."
ROLE MODEL? Though Trump says he has declined numerous reality-TV show offers, the Wharton alum -- class of '68 -- chose to do this one because he considers it educational. "There's talent on the street, and there's talent in the ghettos," he says. "The common ingredient is that all the people on the show will be brilliant."
While Trump is willing to vouch for the caliber of the contestants, the show's gimmicky nature and presumed emphasis on rapid results already has professional academics dismissing it. "The framework of business on its highest levels is not very understandable on the screen, so they'll have to show quick-fix contests that really don't prove anything," says Rahul Garud, an associate professor at New York University's Leonard N. Stern School of Business.
Garud says that's fine as long as the show stimulates a debate about the value of an MBA. Yet, some professors claim to be unconvinced that Trump's business success can impart anything instructive. Sniffs the chairperson of the real estate department at one major B-school: "Donald Trump isn't my business model."
NO-NO QUESTIONS. Indeed, James Schrager, an entrepreneurship and strategy professor at the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business, says the "most brilliant" managers do whatever they can to avoid being on TV. Says Shrager: "The entire show is just foreplay -- and the climax is having Donald fire someone each week."
Would-be contestants have to fill out an online application that probably wouldn't pass muster from any organization's human resources -- or legal -- department. It includes such no-no questions such as marital status, age, and what kind of health you're in. It also asks whether you have stepchildren or pets, their names, who was your favorite teacher, your opinion of Trump, and whether you have any piercings or tattoos.
People who don't mind answering such questions must apply by June 10, in hopes of making the semifinals and being invited to an interview this summer. Applications have to include a 3- to 10-minute video explaining why contestants would be the "perfect" apprentice. "Show us, don't tell us, who you are," the application urges, though it includes no clues on how the video should accomplish that. Presumably, figuring that out is the first challenge. And intriguingly, contestants have to supply their three worst job references.
STICKING WITH THE DONALD? This last item, Burnett says, is to make sure the show doesn't wind up with "16 complete nerds" who wouldn't make for compelling TV. But simple smarts wouldn't be enough to win anyhow. Tearing a page from nearly every MBA program's promotional materials, the show will stress teamwork.
As newly minted MBAs often discover, one often must learn how to be discreetly cutthroat while giving the appearance of cooperating for the good of the organization. Explains Burnett: "To be a tycoon, you'll probably have to piss off some people, too."
The winner could get to hone those skills in the shadow of The Donald indefinitely: Depending on the winner's job performance during the year, Trump says he would be willing to keep him or her around. The mogul thinks even the losers could turn out to be winners, as their TV exposure could bring them a variety of job offers.
While it's unclear how many corporations might recruit from a reality-TV show, the losers will at least have something notable to put on their résumés. By Kate Hazelwood in New York