Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

City Spy

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

City Spy

Article excerpt

STARTING next month, television viewers in the US will get the chance to see a new reality show starring one Sir Richard Branson. Tentatively called Billionaire, the 13-part series is the Fox network's riposte to NBC's successful The Apprentice with Donald Trump. It also coincides, handily, with Branson's attempt to get his Virgin America airline up in the air. Flying out of San Francisco, the new service will cost $500 million to launch and is expected to lose money in at least the first couple of years.

Branson is searching for partners to share the financial risk although, as US business magazine Fast Company points out: "It's uncertain whether he'll find takers." Now is hardly the best time to be entering the US airline industry. Already there are too many airlines chasing passengers who are more interested in the size of the discount on offer than the brand name on the tail. Meanwhile, fuel prices continue to race up, so the airlines are being squeezed at both ends. Still, Branson is ever the optimist.

Backers can look forward to joining the world of Virgin, and, therefore, boasts the bearded one, "pretty astounding returns - maybe triple what they would be if you invested in the stock market or with other venture capitalists". Since many of Virgin's businesses are privately held and the figures remain hidden offshore, this claim is impossible to verify.

Branson may find, too, that conservative US investors are less impressed by his quirky humour, mistaking it for sexual harassment. Just what sort of colleague he would be, they can judge from the forthcoming Billionaire. The critics may need some convincing. "The show is a blatant plug for Branson's new airline," says Fast Company. "When its contestants aren't emulating Branson's derring-do at skydiving, they will reportedly fly on and criticise United and American airlines. …

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