Reality television was a sea of sensationalism in 2009, from Jon and Kate Gosselin separating just ahead of new episodes of their docuseries, to a suitor on “Megan Wants a Millionaire” named a person of interest in a real-life murder in the middle of that show’s run. Counteracting those headlines came “Shark Tank,” an inspirational unscripted series on ABC that had entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to investors (aka “sharks”) for a chance to change their businesses — and their lives. But the series didn’t just change the lives of those who stepped on the stage; it transformed a broadcast network’s programming strategy and inspired the next generation of innovators.
“It’s bigger than business,” says executive producer Clay Newbill. “It’s really about wish fulfillment. I believe that the No. 1 takeaway from ‘Shark Tank’ is hope. This show provides a platform for people to achieve their dreams — anyone with the courage and conviction to pursue that dream, regardless of race, creed, gender, age, socioeconomic background or education. It sends a clear message to all to believe in yourself and your capabilities.”
“Shark Tank” launched right as the economy was rebounding from the 2008 recession. Production had been under way during the financially tough times, though, so while people “couldn’t get a loan from the bank, [the show] was all about debt and funding people,” original shark Robert Herjavec recalls.
Although “Shark Tank” is a part of the “Dragon’s Den” international format, that timely launch helped cement it as a “reflection of the American economy,” he says. “Things change, but I think the show’s still fresh, still exciting, because we reflect what’s really going on in the world.”
“Shark Tank” eventually went on to earn four Emmys, become one of few non-scripted series to receive a syndication deal (with CNBC), and will hit its 200th episode milestone with its 10th season premiere.
It was not an overnight success, though. The Alphabet launched it as a part of the Sunday-night lineup just ahead of its traditional fall launch and quickly shuffled the show to Fridays, which was initially a concern to some involved in the production. But the move proved to be a blessing in disguise.
“What we realized was this show was an incredible co-viewing experience, so families were coming in, and it was kids watching the show with their [parents], and that was a defining piece of how this show became successful,” says Holly Jacobs, executive vice president of reality and syndication programming at Sony Pictures Television. “It redefined Friday-night programming.”
According to ABC’s senior vice president of alternative series, specials and late-night programming Rob Mills, “Shark Tank” has gone on to become one of ABC’s top two co-viewed shows.
“We’re teaching the next generation about business, which will serve a lot of this country.”
“Kids use the phrases,” he says. “We’re teaching the next generation about business, which will serve a lot of this country. All of our shows are really special, but that’s what makes this unique among all other reality shows.”
It wasn’t until the third season of the show that those involved started to feel it take off with audiences, attributing the slightly later-in-the-run success to a combination of factors that included the Friday timeslot; a slew of reruns airing throughout the summer before the next season’s launch; and the additions of Mark Cuban and Lori Greiner to the sharks’ panel alongside original sharks Herjavec, Kevin O’Leary, Barbara Corcoran and Daymond John.
Those sharks were diverse in their areas of expertise, which appealed to and was helpful for a wide variety of entrepreneurs ranging from the tech world to the fashion industry, to farming and lifestyle. But a hallmark of all of them, says Mills, is that they have to empathize with the entrepreneurs.
“You need to be able to say either, ‘Look, I failed too and you need to keep trying’ or ‘I see myself in you and this is why,’” he says. “[Nothing] holds a candle to when you have somebody come on and [guest shark] Alex Rodriguez is tearing up and saying, ‘I see myself in you. I believe in you.’”
For Cuban, it has been key to see “minorities, immigrants, military, a lot more women — people from all walks of life” come in front of him with big ideas. “People have watched the show and they understand. We’re getting a lot more diversity, and I think that’s great for all of us,” he says, noting that the diversity also includes those “who have struggled, who have failed, who have rebounded.”
The third season was when, Newbill says, the business community also took notice of the show, in part because they were able to share updates on how early entrepreneurs were doing after having received investments from the sharks.
Although a balance of not only “different types of companies, but also companies that are at a different period in their life cycle” was always important to storytelling, Newbill says the pitches his production team started to receive after the third season “completely opened up.”
“If there’s a great idea and there’s a great person behind it, that’s the story we want to tell,” he says.
In the 10th season, that story includes a return to Jamie Siminoff, the man behind home-security system Ring. Siminoff originally pitched his product (then called Doorbot) during the fifth season of “Shark Tank,” asking for just under three-quarters of a million dollars in exchange for owning 10% of his company. The sharks passed, but earlier this year, Amazon snapped it up in a deal reportedly worth $1 billion, and now Siminoff will sit alongside those who passed on his idea as a guest shark himself.
|“Shark Tank” made stars in the biz world and attracted Hollywood stars, too, including Jimmy Kimmel, right.
Courtesy of ABC
The stories are also leaning much heavier on the next generation of entrepreneurs, as many of the business owners of today grew up watching and being inspired by this show.
“It’s an incredible education series cloaked in entertainment,” says executive producer Mark Burnett, who also notes that the biggest difference he sees with the recent waves of entrepreneurs coming on the show are that they are “more innovative” than in the beginning.
Adds Jacobs: “I believe half of Silicon Valley grew up watching ‘Shark Tank.’ We have so many young kids who came in and said their life dreams were to grow up and create a business because they grew up watching [this show]. That’s what keeps the show potent: it’s multi-generational.”
The 10th season will also reflect that multi-generational aspect when the children of firefighter Keith Young appear to pitch his product to the sharks. It was Young’s dream to be on the show, and he was in the middle of the audition process, but he passed away from cancer before he could step on the stage. It is a moment and a pitch that Jacobs feels is “more emotional than any we’ve ever had” and also reflects the heart of the show’s message.
“Everybody’s got a dream,” says Corcoran. “We used to get really raw characters who basically walked in with an idea, and now because of social media, because of crowdfunding, because of publicity, we get a far more sophisticated entrepreneur. They’re from the better schools, they have great business plans, they know the numbers, and they’re exactly the guys and gals who, when they’re in the ditch and all odds are against them, they rarely push. I want someone who’s gritty, who’s injured, who has something to prove.”
But Newbill says, “There is an unlimited supply” of entrepreneurs out there just waiting for a chance to change their own lives, and potentially the world. After all, many of the products being pitched today have a “pro-social” element, consider the environment when it comes to production and bake-in donations to good causes.
“The future of America, at least from a business and entrepreneurial aspect, is in good hands,” he says.