During last week's NBC première of "The Apprentice," Marty Kotis called an employee at home to ask if he was watching as 16 contestants began vying for a job with Donald Trump.
"No," he replied. "I'm not going to watch that junk."
"Turn it on," Mr. Kotis urged. "It's pretty good. Tell me who you would fire."
The next day, Kotis gathered his staff in Greensboro, N.C., and told them he was inspired by Mr. Trump's call to go "back to basics." In the reality show, that meant starting with $250 and selling lemonade on the streets of New York City. In Kotis's commercial real estate business, it meant developing the skills to turn leads into done deals.
"A lot of businesspeople are watching this because it's something they can relate to," he says. "They can laugh about it, but if you pick up one good idea from the show, it's like having your own free consultant."
Among the more than 18 million Americans who tuned in to the first of 15 episodes of the surprise hit - think Horatio Alger meets "Survivor" - were business founders, executives, and management professors intrigued by the whole idea of spotting entrepreneurial genius. And though they take it with a grain of salt (this is Hollywood, after all), many credit "The Apprentice" for serving up questions that pervade corporate America. When does it pay to be competitive? Does getting ahead depend on looks or luck instead of talent? The show also weighs whether formal education or the school of hard knocks is more valuable.
"Is it possible to be quite intelligent from an academic perspective but to be quite daft when it comes to practical intelligence or business intelligence?" asks Ben Dattner, a consultant who teaches industrial and organizational psychology at New York University. Employers always wonder how to "make a prediction about who's going to be successful."
The premise of the show is simple. Eight men and eight women - representing a wide range of self-starters from Ivy Leaguers and global managers to someone who skipped college - compete to become a president of one of Trump's companies. The winner gets a $250,000-a-year job. One by one, the rest get "fired."
Along the way, they are treated to Trump's secrets of success. And there's nothing subtle about how he defines success: Work hard, master the art of the deal, and you, too, may find yourself on top of the world. (Producer Mark Burnett of "Survivor" fame throws in plenty of swooping camera shots from Trump's helicopters, jets, and skyscrapers.)
But what's most intriguing to businesspeople is that instead of simply handing over résumés, the job candidates throw themselves into a series of made-for-TV business tasks. At the end of each episode, Trump takes the losing team into the boardroom (cue ominous music) to hash out people's strengths and weaknesses - and then decides who will take the dreaded elevator down.
The men and women compete against each other. In the first episode, when the women's team strutted past the men in the lemonade contest, they won the chance to gawk at Mr. Trump's apartment - an opulent castle in the sky.
The show earned a real-world credential with Episode 2 Thursday night. The teams had only 48 hours to develop commercials promoting Marquis Jet Cards, a way to lease out time on private planes. One of the ads pitched by contestants might actually see air time, says Bill Allard, CEO of Marquis Jet. Because the teams had so little time, setting priorities early was key. "That's what we're dealt every day - having to make decisions the best you can with incomplete information," he adds.
Not all viewers are fans. For some, taking business advice from "The Apprentice" is about as wise as taking hairstyle advice from Trump.
"I would not hire any of these people to do anything in any of my corporations," exclaims Cynthia McKay, CEO of Le Gourmet Gift Basket Inc., which she started at home and built into a multimillion dollar business in Castle Rock, Colo.
Even if the women's miniskirts and low-cut blouses were the producers' idea, none of the candidates struck her as capable of running a major business. And for all the lip service the show pays to the entrepreneurial spirit, Ms. McKay says, it doesn't come anywhere close to reality.
"Everyone I know who's a success really paid their dues, and when we see it simplified in a one-hour show, that's kind of scary," she says. "You wouldn't want people to think they can risk their future, their past, and their current lifestyle - start a business and just have it magically work."
Trump's decision to pit men against women didn't surprise Linda Howell DiMario, CEO of the Arlington Convention & Visitors Bureau in Texas.
"I was simultaneously embarrassed and just fascinated by how the traditional roles set in so quickly," Ms. DiMario says. In Episode 1, the women argue at length and their project leader breaks into tears, as if years of feminist efforts had been erased. "It was like watching a train wreck," she says.
But DiMario doesn't plan to miss a single episode. She wants to see how well the contestants can think on their feet. And she likes comparing Trump's decisions with her own instincts. "The gentleman who was trying to get these people to [pay] $1,000 [for a cup of lemonade] - they call him the maverick - he has some great characteristics," she says.
Though most teammates would have voted him off had it been up to them, Trump kept him in Episode 1, and DiMario agreed. "He is a go-getter. [But] to survive and do well, he, just like Donald Trump, has to learn there are times when you need to work inside a team structure."