– Knight Ridder Newspapers

At the start of the new reality series “The Rebel Billionaire: Branson’s Quest for the Best,” Virgin Worldwide tycoon Richard Branson brings to England 16 contestants vying for an “Apprentice”-style executive position, then precedes his own entrance with a surprise, allegedly witty appearance by a Donald Trump look-alike.

That’s the difference, right there, between the original article and a tacky copy. On “The Apprentice,” Trump made the show by being himself; he didn’t need to hire a Richard Branson look-alike as a gag.

“The Rebel Billionaire,” premiering Tuesday night at 8 EST on Fox, is the latest attempt to clone NBC’s “The Apprentice.” ABC’s attempt, Mark Cuban’s “The Benefactor,” was cut short because of an anemic response from viewers. Expect this “Rebel” to meet the same wave of overwhelming indifference.

Branson is known in this country for three things: his Virgin Records superstores, his Virgin airlines and mostly for his daredevil exploits as a hot-air balloonist.

In “Rebel,” the secret twist is that Branson claims to be looking not just for a one-year president for one of his companies, but for his own replacement as president of Virgin Worldwide.

And what must a person do to demonstrate aptitude for such a position?

In the premiere, the applicants must be polite to the British cabbie who picks them up at the airport, and must complete a midair stunt walking a plank between hot-air balloons.

In many ways, this is pure ego gratification for Branson. He’s the cabbie in disguise (look at me act!). After the faux Trump makes his entrance, Branson makes his, wearing jeans (look at me underdress!). And before asking his eager underlings to walk between balloons, or climb a ladder to sit on top of one, Branson does it himself (look at me be athletic!).

Fittingly, most of the opening hour takes place in or on Branson’s beloved balloons, making it a show dominated by a lot of hot air. Branson, while making a much better first impression than Cuban, nevertheless comes off as a capricious czar, eliminating people almost at whim.

At least on “The Apprentice,” Trump explains his reasoning for each firing, and the tasks are more suited to business school than to “The Amazing Race.”

“Rebel Billionaire” gets points for not being meanspirited, and for its globe-hopping scenic tour (“We’re going to Hong Kong!,” Branson tells his willingly kidnapped private jet passengers at the end of episode one).

It loses them, though, for a lack of originality, drama and any compelling reason to tune in or stay tuned.


8 p.m. EST Tuesday


(c) 2004, New York Daily News.

Visit the Daily News online at http://www.nydailynews.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-11-08-04 1157EST

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