The American dream is alive and well.
Tune in to “Shark Tank” Friday nights on ABC, and you’ll see it thriving. Budding entrepreneurs pitching their million-dollar ideas. Ruthless investors battling for the best deals. All with the hope of striking it rich. That’s what drives millions of viewers to weekly watch “Shark Tank,” which will celebrate its 100th episode Nov. 14.
But at the start, it wasn’t at all clear the show would reach that remarkable milestone. Its first two seasons, the series barely reached 5 million viewers and never got a full-season order. The network sidelined the show from Tuesdays to Friday nights. But then the momentum finally began to shift during season 3.
Shark Kevin O’Leary recalls the moment he knew the show was a hit: He was in the bathroom in Boston’s Logan Airport, when a stranger kept staring at him. “He finally said, ‘Are you that guy from ‘Shark Tank’? And when I said yes, he said, ‘You’re an asshole!’” says O’Leary, laughing. “After that, everything changed.”
Like the budding businessmen and women who come on to sell their schemes, the show had to make its case to the American audience. It’s now a tent-pole on ABC’s schedule, pulling in 9 million viewers a week, winning its timeslot.
“Thank goodness ABC had the courage to stick with something they believed in,” says “Shark Tank” executive producer Clay Newbill. “That’s not a story we hear often in our business unfortunately. Obviously, there’s something magical about this show that takes place in those pitches.”
And last summer, it won the ultimate prize: an Emmy for structured reality program. “Besides the marriage and the birth of my son, it was the greatest moment of my life,” Newbill says. (Adds Shark Lori Greiner: “I just want a statue, too!”)
“Shark Tank” has defied the odds: Not only has it proved that Friday nights can be competitive, but in an era of ever-shrinking ratings, that families can still watch TV together. “Can you imagine how many families and kids watch this show?” raves ABC’s entertainment president Paul Lee. “It’s bringing a whole new generation to the joys of entrepreneurship.”
Part of the thrill comes from never knowing who’s coming out that door. It can be someone with a brilliant pitch — such as the Scrub Daddy sponge, which has made $18 million in sales — or the most head-scratching one, like the Ionic Ear, a surgical implant for Bluetooth so you’d never drop a call. (The catch: Every time the technology gets upgraded, you’d have to go back under the knife.)
And then there are the ones that bring even the toughest Sharks to tears. “Those people who come on and spill their guts out, it’s real, it’s not scripted, it’s coming from their hearts,” says Steve Mosko, president of Sony Pictures Television. “It’s people talking about their dreams.”
Even more drama comes from how the Sharks respond. Will they buy it? And if so, who will offer the best deal?
“Creating a business could be boring, so we needed strong personalities to make the debate come alive,” says executive producer Mark Burnett. Let the bickering begin!
Shark Barbara Corcoran says she’s learned to carefully watch her fellow Sharks’ body language. “The minute I see Mark Cuban shift his hips in his seat,” she says, “I lean back, because I know I’m never going to get this deal.”
Pity the misguided entrepreneur who arrives on the set unprepared. The biggest mistake, say the Sharks, is not knowing the business, inside and out.
That’s not to say, though, there’s a consensus among the Sharks on basic investment principles. Take, for example, the simple question: What’s more important, the idea or the person behind it?
“The idea, because if I don’t like the person, I’ll just fire them,” argues O’Leary.
“The person behind it, always,” counters Daymond John.
“We argue about this every day,” sighs Robert Herjavec. “I always say invest in the jockey, not the horse. Unless you’re Barbara. She’ll invest in the jockey, the horse, the bunny rabbit … and the field of grass next to the racetrack.”
The biggest misperception they face, say the Sharks, is that it’s someone else’s cash they’re putting up. “The entrepreneurs don’t understand that it’s our own money,” says O’Leary. “So we care a lot and we don’t take it lightly.”
Like proud parents, the Sharks are quick to boast of their successes — and yes, they’ll also admit to some that didn’t quite live up to expectations. What went wrong? Poor management, they say.
The story doesn’t end when the credits roll — and that’s why ABC is launching “Beyond the Tank.” “Building a business doesn’t stop with getting an investment, it starts there,” Burnett says.
“Beyond the Tank” will follow the entrepreneurs after the deal is done. “A lot of people think you getting the deal is like winning the lottery,” Newbill says. “But the real hard work starts the moment they get that deal. ‘Beyond the Tank’ is an opportunity for us to tell those stories.”
The producers will follow the successes, as well as the failures. “You’re just as interested in the ones that crashed and burned as those that triggered a bidding war between the Sharks,” says Lee. “Who would have thought business could be so entertaining? Who would have thought business could be so emotional?”