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Friday, December 30, 2011

Can I get a job or promote my business idea using Reality TV? Yes, You Can, in Georgia!

Georgians Looking for Jobs, Loans Can Make a Pitch on Reality TV - Wall Street Journal

TBILISI, Georgia—Governments around the world are scrambling to find innovative policies to create jobs in the teeth of a global downturn. In ex-Soviet Georgia, the government appears to have found a policy that's all its own: reality TV.

Every Sunday, Georgians gather to watch "Employ and Get Employed," an "American Idol"-inspired extravaganza, with echoes of "The Apprentice," on which unemployed citizens and wannabe tycoons pitch business plans to a panel of judges.

On "Employ or Get Employed," the new reality TV hit in the former communist state of Georgia, unemployed citizens and wannabe tycoons pitch business ideas to a panel of bankers. WSJ's Joe Parkinson reports from Tbilisi.

Only this panel of four suited men isn't chaired by a Georgian Simon Cowell, or even a Donald Trump.

Here, participants pitch to Vladimir Gurgenidze, head of Liberty Bank, who until 2008 was Georgia's prime minister; the current prime minister's brother, Bank of Georgia director Irakli Gilauri; plus a third banker and the mayor of the capital, Tbilisi. Mayor Giorgi "Gigi" Ugulava is widely expected to run for president in 2013, when his political mentor Mikheil Saakashvili steps down.

The show, screened at prime time, is notching up one of the highest ratings on Georgian TV.

A recent episode featured a Tbilisi pest-controller called "The Exterminator," who sought capital to decorate his van in cockroach skins. A man who said he was an economics professor pitched for financing to build a flying-saucer-shaped hotel. He said he had been contacted by aliens.

Soon after the show first aired in November, a trainee priest, accompanied by two uniformed female chauffeurs, pitched a "Pink Taxi" service that would be driven by women and only take women passengers. Neither of his companions had a driver's license, the show's producers said, but that didn't put off the panel. Bank of Georgia offered him a start running a taxi from its own fleet.

Critics say "Employ and Get Employed" is essentially a state enterprise, designed to help Mr. Saakashvili's pro-Western, pro-market regime overcome its political Achilles' heel: high unemployment. Georgia's official unemployment rate in September was 15.5%.

The show is bankrolled with funds backed by Tbilisi City Hall. The capital up for grabs—1.1 million lari, or about $660,000—is distributed by banks, but also guaranteed by the city government. If the panel likes a pitch, they offer the contestant a business loan at a 6% interest rate—far cheaper than the national average of around 20%—to help grow their ideas and combat unemployment.

As well as low-interest-rate loans, the panel can offer government jobs, places in state-run business education programs or free leases on municipal land. The show is broadcast weekly on the privately owned, pro-government TV channel, Rustaveli 2. It is produced by the team responsible for "Georgia's Got Talent" and the Georgian versions of "American Idol" and "Big Brother."

Mr. Ugulava, re-elected Tbilisi's mayor in 2010, is a philosophy graduate and former journalist. As the panel's chairman, he announces which contestants succeed in bids for state-backed loans. If a pitch falls flat and fails to secure a loan, the mayor occasionally doles out a job, a one-off contract or even lifestyle advice instead.

Bachuki Bakhtadze, a guitar teacher and composer from Tbilisi, asked for support to launch a floating restaurant for Georgian banquets. The panel decided that, as Georgian banquets are notoriously wine and vodka soaked affairs, the floating restaurant wouldn't be safe, or profitable. The mayor did, however, promise Mr. Bakhtadze a job as a tour guide at the capital's annual festival.

Guram Jobadze also failed to get funding for his project. He wanted to sell coil-shaped potato chips on skewers at vending stalls across Tbilisi. Still, he was offered a place to study at city hall's flagship business education program.

Mayor Ugulava also promotes Tbilisi's latest public works on the show. He leads the show's glamorous blonde presenter on tours that in recent weeks have encompassed the capital's new reservoir; an under-construction emergency call center; and a highway project designed to reduce travel times and accidents en route to the capital.

Since the so-called Rose Revolution swept President Saakashvili to power in 2003, his government has won international acclaim for economic reforms that overhauled labor and tax legislation, reduced corruption and eased the regulatory framework.

But while Mr. Saakashvili and his ruling United National Movement party survived defeat in a war with Russia in 2008, high unemployment is among the factors eating away at their popularity, in this country of about 4.5 million.

Mr. Ugulava's on-screen benevolence has raised some eyebrows. Critics say Georgia's business-friendly government is using the show to promote itself ahead of parliamentary elections next year, and to position the mayor for a run at the presidency a year later, when Mr. Saakashvili's final term expires.

"Of course this is political, but in a way it's smart politics. It's a pre-election treat for voters where the mayor is shoring up his credentials as a reform-minded job creator," said Koba Turmanidze, a political analyst at Tbilisi State University. "In Georgia, people like big political personalities."

From his office on the top floor of Tbilisi's 21-story city hall building, Mayor Ugulava denied the show is shaped to boost his popularity. He said he was warned by colleagues—and by his wife—of the political risks of starring in the show, but he wanted to help embed a free-market mindset in Georgia's population.

"The show's clearly not populist, because I have to say 'no' to a lot of people, and politicians don't like to do that; it brings no political benefit," said Mr. Ugulava. "We're a former Soviet state and we need to keep sending a message to the public: 'This is no longer a planned economy and the attitude cultivated during the Soviet period of reliance on the state is no longer relevant here.'"

Georgia's current prime minister, Nika Gilauri, also scoffed at suggestions that the show has a political objective. "Employ and Get Employed" is "like any other business show," he said in an interview.

Producer Giorgi Khaburzania said he previously tried to produce a show using the "Apprentice" format, but "it didn't work. We needed more money and more funny contestants," he said. "With this show, we've got it all."