THERE’S A RIVETING show on BBC2 in the U.K. called “Dragons’ Den.” The format is similar to “American Idol,” only the judges are venture capitalists, and instead of critiquing the vocal talents of aspiring singers, they dissect the business ventures of aspiring entrepreneurs.“Dragons’ Den” hasn’t yet made its way to an American network, but one of its judges, Peter Jones, has popped up on Simon Cowell’s new reality hit on ABC, “American Inventor.” It turns out that Jones, who founded a telecom company worth about $500 million, is co-creator and exec producer of “American Inventor.” He also sits on the panel of judges, adeptly taking up Cowell’s role on “American Idol” — the arch and persnickety Brit who’ll happily tell a contestant that the invention he’s spent years building in his basement is total crap. On paper, “American Inventor” sounds promising: a geeky showdown between a group of closeted masterminds, each believing that he’s created a gadget as earth-shattering as Velcro or post-it notes. The show’s semi-finalists receive $50,000 to prototype their gizmos, and the finalists get to cut 30-second commercials for them. In reality, the competition is pretty pathetic. The host, Matt Gallant, is so unctuous that he makes Ryan Seacrest sound like Edward R. Murrow. And most of the inventions are of the latenight infomercial variety: a bra for women with breast implants; a “flatulence deodorizer”; a “bladder buddy.” On last week’s show, actor Tony Shalhoub’s older brother turned up to pitch a pooper-scooper for dogs on an extendable handle. For some reason, half of the inventions have something to do with pets or excrement. IT TURNS OUT this formula is wildly successful. “American Inventor” debuted on March 16 with 12.4 million viewers, 4.7 million of them adults ages 18 to 49. The ratings were even higher last week. Somehow, Cowell has once again tapped into some sado-masochistic sub-current in American culture in which a group of nobodies vying for glory while suffering the slings and arrows of a withering Brit is one of the biggest attractions on primetime TV. Both “American Inventor” and “American Idol” are rooted in an idea now commonplace on reality TV, from “The Apprentice” to “Project Runway” to “America’s Next Top Model”: that the process of developing and branding a product for mass consumption is spellbinding enough to captivate millions of people on a weekly basis. There are even two ad executives on “American Inventor”: Ed Evangelista, an executive creative director at JWT, and Mary Lou Quinlan, founder of a marketing agency called Just Ask a Woman. Despite their credentials, they don’t sound much like the Madison Avenue types I know: they don’t spout any advertising jargon about “market democracy” and empowering consumers. They just offer lame one-liners and the occasional moral support, off-setting the frosty comments of Jones. READING BILL CARTER’S forthcoming book, “Desperate Networks,” I was reminded just how deeply marketing deals are woven into reality TV. Carter recalls that Fox execs had run low on development funds when “American Idol” was first pitched to the network, so CAA agent Lee Gabler traveled to the Salt Lake City Olympics to secure a sponsorship deal with the president of Coke. Madison Avenue has certainly grown more ingenious about detecting the opportunities such programs present and filling them with commercial plugs. So I asked Brian Terkelsen, the director of entertainment marketing at Starcom MediaVest, how often do they actually underwrite shows in the script stage, as Coke did with “American Idol.” Terkeslen says that the “American Idol” model is just one of the ways in which brands are rethinking network commercial time. His division at MediaVest recently worked with Proctor and Gamble to develop 90-second featurettes about Cover Girl makeup to run during the commercial breaks of “America’s Next Top Model,” “Everyone is trying to shove brands into content,” Terkelsen said. The challenge, he said, is “how can we do it so as not to offend viewers.” Judging from Simon Cowell’s primetime juggernaut, such advertising tactics aren’t offensive. If anything, they’re the wave of the future.
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