Fourth season nearly doubles its audience

LONDON — European reality formats are still regarded as hot international properties, not least in the U.S., but in Blighty it’s “The Apprentice” that’s been the talk of the town in what passes for summer over here.

The final episode of series four of the skein, screened June 11, gave pubcaster BBC1 one of its highest audiences of the year — and the show’s biggest rating in the U.K.

The last 15-minutes of the program, in which abrasive host Alan Sugar announced who he would hire as his sidekick, peaked at 9.17 million, winning an average share of 36% for the full hour.

That, as the station’s new controller Jay Hunt needed no reminding, is a considerable achievement.

“It’s fantastic that a show with business at its heart can become unmissable TV for such a large audience,” Hunt said.

Without wishing to detract from the smallscreen phenomenon that “The Apprentice” has undoubtedly become in the U.K., this comment is more than a shade disingenuous.

The key to the show’s success is the casting of the 16 wannabes rather than its business content, which is less relevant to its target audience of twenty and thirtysomethings who revel in a reality program that avoids being a freak show.

This year’s well-groomed wannabes perfectly captured the British public’s imagination and received the kind of media coverage normally reserved for misbehaving royals.

The fashion sense of these budding entrepreneurs was more important than their knowledge of revenue streams or business models.

Significantly, the more upscale elements of the British press lavished acres of news, feature and comment space on “The Apprentice.”

Even The Independent, which avoids excessive celebrity coverage in favor of green issues and bashing the Iraq war, went into overdrive in talking up the final of “The Apprentice.”

So has the show peaked in the U.K? At what point will “The Apprentice” become passé?

Hunt must hope that success on this scale can be sustained for at least one more season.

Two years ago, season two, aired on BBC1’s less populist sister web, BBC2, was winning audiences of around 4.8 million and audience shares in the low 20s. Season four ended with almost double those figures.

TV ratings depend on all kinds of things other than the show itself, not least the programs that rival networks are airing.

Last year “The Apprentice” went head-to-head with that other great U.K. reality juggernaut, “Britain’s Got Talent,” shown by ITV1, BBC1’s main terrestrial rival.

Not this year. ITV1 gave “The Apprentice” final an easy ride — “Britain’s Biggest Babies” (what was that about freak shows?) drew a mere 3.1 million viewers and a 12% share.

Hunt, however, cannot count on ITV1 being so charitable next time.

Today’s TV audiences are more fickle than ever and, mindful of the prolonged embarrassment that “Big Brother” is becoming for Channel 4, the new BBC1 controller should already be getting her commissioning teams to find a successor to “The Apprentice.”

The BBC makes much of how a key part of its public service remit is to support creative risk taking and that ratings are not the key indicator of a show’s success.

To demonstrate this is not hollow talk, it should ax “The Apprentice” after series five — or risk the kind of backlash “Big Brother” is experiencing.

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