Reuters (2), AP file
Sir Richard Branson, center, and Mark Cuban, right, hope to give Donald Trump's reality project "The Apprentice" a run for its money.
updated 4/28/2004 4:36:40 PM ET 2004-04-28T20:36:40

Just yesterday it seemed that a surfeit of mansions, limousines and power was enough for the average billionaire. Not anymore. The latest perquisite for this exclusive set: a reality show you can call your own.

Donald Trump's success with "The Apprentice" set the trend in motion, and this week this wildly popular show has its finale on General Electric's NBC network. Not to be outdone, Sir Richard Branson and Mark Cuban will each try to trump Trump. (MSNBC is a Microsoft-NBC joint venture.)

Branson's series, dubbed "Branson's Big Adventure," will air on News Corp.'s Fox network while Cuban's program, "The Benefactor," has been picked up by ABC, the ailing Walt Disney Co. network. As with Trump, what these billionaires lack in TV experience they make up for in business acumen.

Branson, who is 53 and first landed on our Billionaires list in 1992, famously parlayed his popular Virgin brand into an empire that includes airlines, retail stores, wireless services and soft drinks. The British subject was knighted in 1999 for his business prowess. Mark Cuban, 46, hit it big when he sold his startup to Yahoo! for $5.7 billion in 1999. He debuted as a billionaire in 2001.

Accomplished though they may be, prime time's newest masters of the universe will have their work cut out for them. "The Apprentice" is the season's seventh-most-watched program in prime time, according to Nielsen, with an average audience of 19.4 million viewers. According to one prominent media buyer, a 30-second advertising spot on Trump's show can command as much as $400,000 — on a par with scripted hits like "Friends" and "ER."

The Trump name has cachet, and his commanding and charismatic manner makes him awfully fun to watch. "‘The Apprentice works because the show's concept and his personality meld so perfectly," says industry analyst Jack Myers.

On Trump's show, contestants compete for his approval by tackling various business challenges in or near New York City. Each week the losing team is sent to the boardroom, where one of their members is fired. The eventual winner gets a $250,000-a-year job with Trump.

On Branson's and Cuban's shows, contestants similarly will compete for the star billionaire's approval. With Branson, the settings will be international, the losers will be left on the tarmac and the winner's prize is undisclosed. With Cuban, the losers will be dismissed at his whim and the winner gets $1 million.

Branson and Cuban may be outsized personalities like Trump, but we don't know if they're fun to watch. And it's not clear who'll tune in to these blatant rip-offs. Neither one has the cult-like fan base that Trump has cultivated over the years as marriages, divorces and brushes with bankruptcy landed him regularly on tabloid front pages.

We won't really know how these magnates match up until the ratings are in, but here's how we see it so far. May the best billionaire win.

© 2012


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