Certainly it's not asking too much of our captains of industry that they be able to do daredevil stunts in hot-air balloons 10,000 feet above the Earth? Perhaps they should also be expected to dine on fresh wiggly worms and fight pumas with their bare hands, too. The world is changing, dear readers o' ours.

With those changes come reality TV programs that are sillier, stupider and more ridiculous all the time -- for instance, "The Rebel Billionaire: Branson's Quest for the Best," a combination of "The Apprentice" and "Fear Factor" making its red-faced premiere on Fox tonight. Here is a show that adheres unashamedly to the rigid formulas of the genre, especially "Donald Trump's Weekly Tribute to Donald Trump."

This time it's Sir Richard Branson, a cheeky British chap who owns an airline and a lot of record stores all named Virgin, presumably not after himself. He likes romping across the personality pages of People magazine and its ilk, looking, for all his dough, like a hobo with a scraggly beard. The prize on Trump's show is a job within his empire; Branson announces he is looking for -- though may not necessarily find -- someone to take over his bulging global empire.

From 50,000 applicants, 16 self-selling schmoes were selected to perform elaborate and seemingly perilous pranks, with a couple aspirants becoming jetsam each week until one or two remain. They'll probably have to wrestle pigs or eat crow, literally, to determine the triumphant executive, though the premise is worded in such a way as to give Branson a last-minute escape hatch that would render the whole enterprise moot.

It's hard to imagine it being mooter than it already is.

As is tediously standard, the premiere begins (at 8 on Channel 5) with the contestants arriving at the money-master's mansion, in this case situated outside London, while Branson and a hard-sell announcer tell us that the eager young saps will be competing for "the biggest prize in reality TV history" and taking "a leap into the unknown" to get it. They're all welcomed to the mansion by beautiful Virgin girls in red and told they are in for the greatest experience of their lives, or perhaps in the history of life, yadda yadda yadda and blah blah blah.

Quickly they get their first shockeroo. The grizzled old cab driver who brings them out in several groups from the airport is none other than Branson himself, camouflaged as a codger in movie makeup and listening to their every bit of small talk -- tiny talk, actually -- from his vantage point in the front seat.

Then comes the de rigueur introduction of the characters and their staunch statements of self-confidence and bravery, some of which are nauseatingly egotistical. The values imparted by these shows take us way back to the '50s and the '80s and the mindless worship of materialist success. Kids who watch these shows are inculcated in that culture and taught that a person can aspire no higher than to be sinfully rich, have marble floors and be powerful enough to tell an employee "you're fired" whenever the mood strikes.

Some of the contestants on "Rebel Billionaire" don't need a hot-air balloon to go over the top. Steve, a "business executive and tennis pro," says of his fellow players, "I plan on making every single one of them my bitch." Why, Steve!

But he's a shy-boots compared to Spencer, who proclaims with pride, "I'm young, I'm hungry, I'm greedy. I'm a very motivated individual, and I'll tell you one thing: I'm a winner."

To what vaunted station in life have Spencer's alpha-male, dog-eat-whale, rugged and ruthless values brought him? He's a used-car salesman. He is also, ha ha, one of the first contestants to be sent packing

Most of the episode is taken up by a pointless and protracted aerial stunt that takes place 10,000 feet up. Two of Branson's infernal balloons float there, joined by a long steel beam only three inches wide. Contestants, protected by heavy wires from falling, have to walk across that rod from one balloon to the other to prove their prowess at -- what? Balloon walking, apparently. Maybe in a future show they can dance in their undies on the wings of airplanes, like those courageous cuties of "Flying Down to Rio."

"I'm feeling betrayed," groans Sarah, who'd been promised she could go first and get it over with and then is double-crossed. Sarah, we are told, is already the CEO of a fabulous footless pantyhose empire. She has the civility to say she thinks the competition will be a "humbling and interesting experience," and one suspects that a modest, unaggressive attitude like that might eventually get her bumped off the show.

"Rebel Billionaire" is from Bunim/Murray Productions, who make hours and hours of reality programming, some of it good and much of it wretched, for MTV and other networks. With even the Donald's ratings down a bit this year, "Billionaire" may have arrived a wee bit late to be part of a trend. At least one can hope. This show doesn't just feature hot-air balloons, it is a hot-air balloon.

It could drift out to sea and never be missed.

The Rebel Billionaire: Branson's Quest for the Best (two hours) premieres tonight at 8 on Channel 5.

Virgin mogul Richard Branson and contestant Sarah get ready for the series premiere's hot-air balloon challenge.What qualifies a person to run Richard Branson's company? According to "The Rebel Billionaire," the criteria include wing-walking on a biplane.