Overanalysis: Rich Guy Shows, Part Two- Shark Tank

22 05 2012

On the surface, ABC’s Shark Tank appears to be just another “panel” reality show in the mold of American Idol, America’s Next Top Model, and any number of other programs in which amateurs present their work to a panel of sassy judges in hopes of getting a contract or deal of some kind.  And really, that’s what Shark Tank is, but it is so, so much more than that, and the show is very worthy of overanalysis by nerdos like me.

Shark Tank is the American adaptation of an overseas and Canadian program called Dragons’ Den.  The concept is pretty simple:   a few filthy rich investors listen to pitches from inventors and small business entrepreneurs and decide if they want to invest their own money (and possibly their time and expertise) in exchange for company equity.

Not a bad idea, really, but it sounds pretty humdrum.  Financial transactions are not exactly edge-of-your-seat excitement, as anyone who has spent an hour in line at their local branch can attest.

The real “hook” here is that this is not a stuffy business meeting.  Some of these ideas are brilliant.  Some are awful.  This one, for example, is so ridiculous that even Robert, the “nice” shark, absolutely shreds it.

As you can see, the sharks can be quite a group of characters.  You may have noticed the mean bald-headed guy dripping with sarcasm in that clip.   His name is Kevin O’Leary and he’s like a cross between Bill Gates, Daniel Plainview, and Scrooge McDuck.

One of these guys is a cartoonish, bloodthirsty tycoon who will do anything in pursuit of a dollar. The other is a duck.

While there is a rotating panel of sharks, in the more recent (and honestly, better) episodes, the group usually consists of FUBU clothing magnate Daymond John, Manhattan real estate mogul Barbara Corcoran, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, technology investor Robert Herjavec, and the aforementioned Kevin O’Leary.

The trickiest thing about a show like this is that it forces the sharks to forever toe the line between savior and villain, since they could potentially rescue and revive companies or crush the dreams of optimistic inventors who have staked their livelihoods on an idea or small business model.

Most of the sharks do a pretty decent job of this.  Corcoran often plays the role of a sympathetic motherly shark, usually offering encouragement (even to horrible ideas, like the sticky note one above) and, when not interested in investing, will even offer an easy out like “it’s not an industry I know anything about” or “I just don’t personally like the product.”  It’s a kind way to let them down, certainly, when compared to a more general condemnation.

Daymond John doesn’t stray too far from Corcoran’s method, though he will get argumentative and hard-nosed when the situation calls for it.  He isn’t overly outspoken, but he shows himself as incredibly savvy when it comes to product distribution strategies and he rarely dismisses anything too quickly.  Indeed, coming from an urban minority background and making a fairly unlikely fortune by catering to that demographic seems to have made him keen to spotting the next FUBU around the corner.  He is certainly smart enough to know that it doesn’t come along very much, but he appears determined to notice it if it does.

Mark Cuban is easily the most famous of the panelists but, oddly enough, the most middle-of-the-road in terms of his decisions and demeanor.  It isn’t unusual for a business pitch to focus specifically on Cuban as a conduit for promotion or expansion (sometimes very transparently) but he mainly sits back and speaks only when he is addressed directly.  His role on the show is a welcome deviation from his public rep as the obnoxious, loud, referee-berating courtside owner of the Mavericks and, either by design or coincidence, it makes his more reserved statements just that much more interesting.  Overall though, he’s a softy.  A prime example of this is when he is directly pitched a product called the “Profender”, which over-complicates and adds a horribly unwieldy component to the simple act of simulating a basketball defender’s hand.  Cuban is all smiles and no one trashes what is, in this writer’s opinion, a terrible and wildly expensive product.

[Side note: I worked for the USC men’s basketball team for two years and I can honestly say that I could not imagine trying to use one of these Profenders in a practice.  Aside from the massive cost difference between a $10 broom and a $200 or $500 Profender, the awkward need to slide the wheels across the floor are a disaster waiting to happen.  It would only take one incident of rolling that thing into a player’s ankle to get the Profender banned and the company possibly sued, not to mention my ass getting fired for causing the injury.  To me, the Profender feels like those kitchen devices designed to easily microwave an egg- it over-complicates a simple thing and fills a very, very small niche.]

The crux of Shark Tank‘s entertainment really lies with Kevin O’Leary and Robert Herjavec (both of whom appeared on the Canadian CBC edition of Dragons’ Den).

While O’Leary seizes his role of the villain with gusto and dishes out phrases like “Don’t cry over money because it never cries over you” and “To me you’re radioactive”, Herjavec takes a lighter approach.  He is just as outspoken as O’Leary (and sometimes more outspoken) and will critique his fellow sharks’ decisions nearly as much, but comes across far more as the cool Uncle Donald to O’Leary’s mean Uncle Scrooge.

Thankfully this blog isn’t popular enough for Disney to sue me.

It’s easy to see why these two were carried over into the U.S. version of the show.  O’Leary carries the sarcastic nickname of “Mr. Wonderful” and is willing to ham up his cold-heartedness just enough to make him loathsome but likeable in that Jack Sparrow or Tony Stark sort of way, mainly because deep down we suspect it’s just an act.  Herjavec and O’Leary are not always foils, but the show really strikes a certain vibe when they are and, at times, they absolutely carry the program.  O’Leary’s actions suggest he might want to be a bit of a TV star, and watching him verbally carve up hopeful entrepreneurs makes me really wish that he could take Donald Trump’s place on NBC’s Celebrity Apprentice (overanalyzed last week).

With Herjavec, however, there don’t seem to be any less-than-genuine moments.  If he tells you an idea is bad, or that your deal valuation is off, you believe him because you expect him to level with you.  Even if he rejects a product or idea, he’ll usually find something positive to say about it, and if he doesn’t and he honestly thinks you need to give it up and try something else, he’ll say it.  I can’t locate a clip, but on more than one occasion he basically says “You’re smart, you have other ideas- this isn’t the one that makes you.”

And overall, that is what really makes a show like Shark Tank so addictive and watchable:  hope struggling versus acknowledgement of failure.  It’s a microcosm of not only the American dream but the worldwide dream of using your wits and sweat to make yourself into something, even if you start modestly (in the show’s intro, they mention that Herjavec is the son of an immigrant factory worker, and that makes you like and trust him even more).

Sure, there’s plenty of schadenfreude in seeing ridiculous pitches, and there’s a lot of joy in critiquing what others could have done to land a deal, but as cheesy as it sounds, the biggest fun is seeing something you (even kind of) believe in- something that makes you step back and say “hey, that’s cool, hope it works out for them.”

But yeah, if that doesn’t get you, O’Leary (and the rest) dropping some sharp one-liners certainly will.  (Jump to 3:30 to see both Herjavec and O’Leary get particularly harsh.)

It’s a fun show, ain’t it?

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