If a million-dollar idea ever passed through my head, I was doubtless too distracted by something I was eating or some music I was listening to or the way the dust played in a shaft of sunlight to notice it. Or if I did notice it, I likely dismissed it as ridiculous or requiring the sort of effort that was ultimately not as interesting to me as finding something new to eat or listen to or simply regarding the dust in the sun.
That is the difference between me and the people on "Shark Tank," a new, though not original, game show that premieres Sunday on ABC. In this acknowledged remake of a Japanese series whose title translated as "Money Tigers" and whose successful British iteration, "Dragons' Den," airs in the U.S. on BBC America, entrepreneurs looking for cash to start or grow a business approach a panel of five extremely rich people who have the option of investing their own money in it. Or not.
Mark Burnett ("Survivor," "The Apprentice") is behind the local version. (On a related note, he's also producing the new Joan Rivers TV Land series, "How'd You Get So Rich?") Although the format has been around since 2001, the current economic climate -- tight credit, slashed salaries, disappearing jobs and recovery yet only the faint breeze that may promise rain -- gives the show a certain currency, not to say piquancy. Some of the contestants here, if that's the word -- they are not competing against each other, and theoretically all could walk away with money -- seem less concerned with making a big score than achieving simple security.
Just as "American Idol" ritualizes the audition process all performers endure, "Shark Tank" formalizes pitching to investors, or loan officers, that defines the life of the small businessman. ("American Inventor," from Simon Cowell, which also ran on ABC, hit some of the same points as "Shark Tank," as did Discovery Channel's "Pitchmen," which featured the late Billy Mays.) And as on "Idol," the experts are here in part to throw cold water on the applicants, to snap them out of their illusions and pack them back to their day jobs.
In a world in which everyone is encouraged to "dream big" this is a kindness that looks a lot like cruelty. And that is an important part of what such shows come to sell: the smackdown. (It doesn't appeal much to me, but I understand that humiliation has its fans.) While some of these entrepreneurs are already well on their way to success -- they're looking for the capital to become more successful -- others are the casualties of a world that tells them to dream. The man who thinks that surgically implanting a Bluetooth in your neck is something people might want has been let onto the show expressly to be disabused of that notion. Another who has twice mortgaged his home and invested his savings and children's college fund in an electronic alternative to magazines in doctors' offices ("the future of waiting patiently," he weakly puns) does need the corrective. The panelists' concern is real.
The cleverest part of the show is that it makes the judges into contestants; they compete against one another for the right to invest in a business, and they haggle with the entrepreneurs over the terms of their investment. "If you counter, I will counter," says Daymond John (founder of the FUBU clothing line) having made an offer to a man trying to take his pie-making business to the next level. "Oooh," chimes in Robert Herjavec, who made his money in security software. "I like that."
Herjavec is one of two panelists imported from the Canadian "Dragons' Den." The other, Kevin O'Leary, who sold a passel of merged software companies to Mattel in a deal that has been seen as very bad for Mattel, seems to be the Bad Mogul to Herjavec's Good -- a perhaps purposely unlikable fellow I'm sure some will regard as heroically clear-eyed. "I don't get emotional about money," he says. "I just want to make more of it."
The main drama exists in the distance between the relatively small percentage of the business the entrepreneurs are willing to part with (and the money they want for it) and what the Sharks actually offer -- most want half the company, if not a controlling interest, for their investment. And though it is true almost by definition that most people who believe they have a million-dollar idea have overvalued it, this decision, which must be made in a matter of seconds, is less about money than control and even a kind of love -- the sense that you are about to give away the baby you raised from a stray inspiration into an actual product, or near enough, to a stranger whose only recommendation is that he has a lot more dough than you.
It's not without interest, this dilemma. But I still prefer the sunbeams.
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)