When 1% meets 99% on reality TV

By: AJ Marechal


When I sat down with Mark Burnett a few months back to discuss “The Voice,” he emphasized that the strength of the show’s format comes from the superstar judges acting as coaches and mentors to aspiring singers. To him, this relationship between celeb coach and unknown contestant tapped into the topic of the “99%” and “1%” in American society, since part of “The Voice” involves superstars (the 1%) pleading for virtual nobodies (the 99%) to be on their team.

This theme of muli-millionaires engaging with average Americans has seeded itself deeply into today’s reality TV landscape at a time when you cannot turn on the news without hearing phrases like “unemployment rate,” “small businesses” and “layoffs.” Biz makeover shows like “Tabatha’s Salon Takeover,” which launched in 2008 on Bravo, have spawned a slew of copycat shows where savvy, entrepreneurial folk take to small, struggling companies in various industries to offer business makeovers.

Each net seems to have its own brand of this unscripted programming: This week, TNT announced a more broad-appealing version of this
subgenre, “Save Our Business”; CNBC has also added a business makeover
show to its new unscripted lineup, “The Big Fix”; Travel Channel has “Hotel Impossible,” Food Network has “Restaurant Impossible”; Spike TV is entering its third season of “Bar Rescue,” and has announced “Tattoo Rescue” for this year. And CBS’s “Undercover Boss” most explicity emphasized the 1%’s crossover into 99% territory, and resounded with auds.

For the “Sharks” on ABC’s hit reality skein “Shark Tank,” the success of shows with entrepreneurial spirit should come as no surprise, given today’s economic climate. “Shark Tank” stands as Friday’s number 1 TV show, and surprisingly has become family programming, with tykes and adults alike tuning in to see what apsiring entrepreneur will have their business invested in by established tycoons.

“Think about America today,” said Kevin O’Leary, one of the panelists/Sharks on the show. “The path today is becoming an entrepreneur. It’s about taking control. That situation found this show, and that’s why ‘Shark Tank’ is on fire.”

Clay Newbill, who serves as exec producer on “Shark Tank” with Mark Burnett, chimed in: “We’re having an impact on the entrepreneurs of today, but also tomorrow. Kids who watch the show today are picking up business ideas they can use in the future, and learning the power of the human spirit.”

The “situation” of today’s economy has, it seems, driven viewers to a brand of unscripted content that differs from what was popular several years ago. While “Real Housewives” is still drawing viewers, gone are the shows like VH1’s “Fabulous Life Of,” and MTV’s “Super Sweet 16.” The new wave of reality TV that is making a mark on the cable space focuses on aspirational, light-hearted, Americana content like “Duck Dynasty” (which focuses on rednecks who amassed a fortune from a duck calling biz) and, yes, even “Honey Boo Boo.” Even in the singing competition space, the intimate quality of NBC’s “The Voice” may be what helped the show edge out Fox’s “The X Factor,” which lacked that mentorship facet.

Burnett emphasized to me that with shows like “The Voice” and “Shark Tank,” reality TV can be positive, and not based on loud and crude dramatics.

Newbill echoed those sentiments: “We are creating jobs on ‘Shark Tank’…This has a shot to be reality TV at its best. Thank god ABC and Sony stuck with it long enough. Why do I want to watch a show about business? It embodies the American dream, and shows that entrepreneurism is alive and well in this country.”

“Shark Tank” airs Fridays on ABC.