Reality series adapted from Japan's 'Den'

Mark Burnett is stepping into Sony Pictures Television’s “Dragons’ Den,” signing on to create a U.S. version of the Japanese reality format in which aspiring entrepreneurs attempt to convince successful moguls to invest in their ideas.

Project marks a rare studio collaboration for Burnett, who has generally produced his own. Move also signals Sony’s intention to dramatically increase its production of primetime reality fare.

Deal between Sony and Burnett stemmed from Burnett’s personal relationships with Sony chief Howard Stringer and SPT prexy Steve Mosko.

“We’ve been trying to find a way to collaborate, and we promised ourselves 2008 would be the year,” Burnett told Daily Variety.

Mosko said he hopes the deal with Burnett is the beginning of a longer-term relationship with the producer –and a larger overall roster of nonscripted projects at Sony.

“We are really going to move to ramp up our reality and light-entertainment business for networks and syndication,” he said, adding that Sony-based producer Michael Davies is also a big part of the company’s nonscripted plans. “It’s a huge priority for us.”

Phil Gurin (“The Singing Bee”), who has been attached to “Dragon’s Den” in the U.S., is talking to Sony about his role in the project moving forward.

As for Burnett’s involvement with Sony, it began with the “Survivor” producer examining various properties Sony owned. One of Burnett’s favorite British reality shows turned out to be the Blighty version of Sony’s “Dragon’s Den.”

Burnett quickly decided on a new name for the format — “The Shark Tank”– but plans to keep the essence of the idea intact.

Would-be business titans pitch their ideas to a panel of already established entrepreneurs — the Dragons, or in the new version, the Sharks. Contestants’ mission is to convince the Sharks to invest money in their concepts in the hopes of raising enough capital to move forward.

“It’s about seeing people squirm, either in their unpreparedness or their lies,” Burnett said.

Producer said the show plays a bit like the early rounds of “American Idol.”

“People come in with an idea they think is brilliant, and it’s awful,” Burnett said. “But then you get the truly inspired ideas, and the Sharks have a chance to fight it out.”

The Sharks will act more like Simon Cowell than Paula Abdul. Rather than simply forking over coin to the business wannabes, the Sharks will act like true investors, pushing for a deal that’s in their best interest.

“If you’re coming in desperate for money, it’s like there’s blood in the water,” Burnett said. “If you want to be a great entrepreneur in the U.S., you had better be ready to swim in shark-infested waters.”

Sony and Burnett begin pitching the project to nets later this month. Studio first attempted to set up the “Dragon’s Den” format in the States about four years ago. Despite the format’s success overseas, U.S. nets were worried that Burnett’s “The Apprentice” had cornered the market on business-themed reality shows.

A bit later, ABC served up its own take on a business format with “American Inventor,” creating a show that focused on wacky inventions.

Zack Van Amburg, who co-runs SPT programming with Jamie Erlicht, said he’s not worried about similarities between the two concepts or the fact that ABC’s project didn’t become a big hit.

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but they got it wrong, and I think we have the recipe to get it right,” he said. “That show focused on things and products. We’re focusing on people and dreams. That will have much more impact.”

As for Burnett, the producer is gearing up for one of his busiest periods ever. He has three shows airing on Thursdays — “The Celebrity Apprentice,” “Survivor” and “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?” And in the next few weeks, NBC will debut his gameshows “Amnesia” and “My Dad Is Better Than Your Dad.”

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