These Sharks Still Bite

2023 has unquestionably been a year of losses for my most recent full-time employer, Sony Pictures TV.  They bid goodbye to two veteran scripted series, THE GOLDBERGS and THE BLACKLIST, the last link to the three-headed presidency that I had the honor of working for, and plenty of my respected one-time colleagues that somehow seemed expendable when new management, the braintrust that valiantly tried to make a significant content provider out of a company that recently said to one of the most prolific on the planet they’re not all that inclined to want to carr it, was rescued to take over the challenge of a being a studio without a significant vertically integrated streaming partner to support.

But the battle rages on for those that are around, and an even more enduring show enters its 15th season tonight,  SHARK TANK returns to anchor Friday nights for ABC, not exactly the most ratings-opportunisitic time slot on broadcast TV these days, and one that I was part of many spirited negotiations to avoid.  Way back in the neanderthal days of the 2010s, there was potential to get far larger audiences on other weeknights, particularly Sunday nights, where more people are watching some sort of television.  But an awful lot of them watch football, and, these days, thanks to streaming services, almost anything else you can think of that’s not live, day-and-date content.  And most shows, even many of those that ABC has trotted out on what has now become a year-round reality night even in years not impacted by strikes, have been vulnerable to cancellation.  SHARK TANK made valiant attempts to succeed in that environment during my time there, and it afforded me ample opportunity to delve deep into the DNA of exactly what makes the show work, where we felt opportunity existed for upside and to give our executives fodder to fight what they felt was the good fight to avoid that percieved death trap.

We offered up detailed and somewhat skewed studies that pointed to what we felt could “freshen up” what some feared was a tiring series.  We did dozens of focus groups and studies.  We looked meticulously at the proliferation of reruns that aired almost nonstop on CNBC (and still do) and lobbied vainly to attempt to limit them.  We profiled every one of the “core six” sharks that have been with the show for most of its run, and extensively looked at where we felt we could add to the appeal by tossing some “guest sharks” into the water.

In other words, we did everything possible to try and screw things up.  Thankfully, we didn’t succeed.

What we did learn was SHARK TANK is much more about the American dream, and the belief that anyone could have a million dollar idea, than it is about any personality, panel member or set piece.  Yes, the appeal of having a panel of competitive millionaires embracing–or skewering–these ideas, in a manner akin to other reality success stories is a constant.  The demographic and psychographic breadth of Barbara Corcoran, Robert Herjavec, Daymond John, Lori Grenier, “Mr. Wonderful” Kevin O’Leary and, of course, Mark Cuban is crucial.  They represent a true cross-section of experience from fields as diverse as fashion, real estate, tech, home shopping and investments, from backgrounds as diverse as Queens to Canada.

Indeed, the series’ North American roots lie in Canada, where a similar series called DRAGON’S DEN was a modest breakout in the mid-2000s.  The prolific Mark Burnett, arguably the most successful unscripted producer at the time who controlled franchises such as CBS’ SURVIVOR, NBC’s THE VOICE and one other one you may have heard of for NBC called THE APPRENTICE, embraced and embellished it, bringing in O’Leary from the Canadian series as his answer to Simon Cowell and surrounding him with the others.

But what has made the show what it is for 317 episodes has been those brave enough to take the walk down the hallway to the dramatic music (it’s actually a relatively short stage flat), spend an awfully long time pleading their case and then, through the magic of editing and producing, the segments are reduced to elevator pitches and often dramatic negotiations.  With hundreds of thousands of dollars of the panelists’ actual money at stake–life-changing sums for those who have literally invested theirs and more into their passions–the tension is palpable.   The panelists compete, they bicker, but no, they don’t find, and they definitely don’t sleep together. 

The ability for any viewer, regardless of background, to identify is universal.  And the reaction of virtually anyone I have shared the experience of watching this with, be it friend, foe or research subject, has never not been indifferent.

So, sure, guest sharks are still on the menu.  For the upcoming season, per Manya Seisay of WE GOT THIS COVERED, there are a few new faces that will occasionally help out:

According to Deadline, Season 15 boasts an all-star lineup of guest sharks, including film and television producer Jason Blum, CEO and founder of Blumhouse Productions, and Mark Rubin, founder and executive chair of Fanatics, a leading provider of sports merchandise. Another guest investor is Candace Nelson, a serial entrepreneur and founder of Sprinkles Cupcakes, Pizzana, and CN2 Ventures, who also served as a judge on “Cupcake Wars” and “Sugar Rush.”  Two guest sharks from previous seasons will return: Emma Grede, CEO and co-founder of Good America and founding partner at Skims, and Daniel Lubetzky, the billionaire founder and CEO of KIND Snacks.

Thankfully, the likes of Bethanny Frankel and Sir Richard Branson, personalities we tested ad infinitum per the demands of obsessed executives, won’t be part of the mix.  They may be fine in other forms of reality television which they have tentacles to, and indeed, many SHARK TANK fans watch those shows.  But they watch SHARK TANK for different reasons, and what its viewers respond to most is authencity and true passion.  As any Dallas Mavericks or NBA fan knows all too well, Cuban, billions aside, oozes that.  That’s why he is arguably the face of the show, though he would be the first to tell you he’s only part of a team.  He clearly learned from his former employee Dirk Nowitzki quite well.

The show is quite safe on Friday night, ratings notwithstanding.  These days, a 0.3 or 0.4 same-night demographic rating is large enough to win a time slot.  The show transcended pop culture.  It served as a storyline for an arc on Netflix’ longest-running scripted series, GRACE AND FRANKIE, that I got the chance to see filmed.  Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin were actually jazzed to be part of something else.  I probably shouldn’t be surprised that every single person I’ve shared a residence with this century love the show, too.

So here’s to the start of the next 15 and then some, sharks.  You keep doing what you are doing, and thank goodness you didn’t listen to those of us who now merely have extremely fond memories for being a part of your ride.

Until next time…

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