Saturday, September 24, 2022

Peter Bart: Deals Keep Swirling, But Are There Signs ‘Shark Tank’ Is Losing Its Bite?

It was a gutsy pitch – OK, call it brazen. The proposed show would have the same blah cast week-to-week, non-stars with star egos. The storylines would be repetitious, the dialogue argumentative. The winning “entrepreneurs” would be thrilled, but then daunted as they realized how drastically their “asks” would be reduced through confiscatory capitalism.

So here’s the bottom line: The pitch worked; so did the cast. And when the czars of television celebrate one another in two weeks, almost everyone will cite Shark Tank, entering its 13th year, as a perverse stroke of genius — one that may keep collecting Emmys.

While the formula still clicks week to week, the ratings still buoyant, insiders now detect seeds of self-destruction. Will Shark Tank ultimately become a victim of its own egocentricity? More on that below.

Having once seemed unlikely, Shark Tank today is unavoidable, its episodes, new or geriatric, popping from myriad media spigots, ABC and CNBC among them. Viewers who become exasperated sifting through forgettable streamers compulsively switch to a Shark — a magic media tonic.

And the cast has aged well, thanks to the wizardry of makeup and botox. It is all but impossible to detect whether a repeat is a year old or perhaps 12. The avaricious Mr. Wonderful (Kevin O’Leary) lacks a facial line and even Mark Cuban, darkly cunning in person, manages a pristine smile on TV.

The regulars will be augmented next season by new capitalist combatants – a Kardashian partner, a survivor of BBC’s Dragon Den (a Shark Tank predecessor) and even comedian Kevin Hart. Past guests have occasionally stolen the show; Richard Branson petulantly emptied a glass of water on Cuban and hasn’t been seen in the tank since.

The show bears the corporate stamps of MGM and Sony Pictures TV, with its founding father, Mark Burnett, hovering behind the scenes. The creator of Donald Trump’s TV career has conveniently become a media blur.

The principal conceit of the show, of course, is that the Sharks invest their own money, aggressively negotiating for ever bigger shares of the take. Wannabe entrepreneurs watch their stakes shrink as they are lectured about their greedy valuations and even accused of cynical motivations – are they seeking capital or merely publicity?

Fiscal details are largely absent: Do the sharks themselves have upfront tips or outside co-investors? Once deals are closed, what percentage actually survive checks of product efficacy, sales revenue or alleged distribution deals?

Cuban’s early intervention barred the network from grabbing a piece of every deal, but it’s still not entirely clear what other fiscal participations may take place. Companies earning Shark confidence often seem to be instantly acquired by bigger entities, Jamba Juice swallowing Talbott Teas, for example. (Cuban, an advocate of creative timing, sold his nationwide Landmark Theatres chain days prior to the pandemic, the deal having nothing to do with the Tank).

Oddly, hosts lately have been implicitly challenging the basic premise of their own show. Wouldn’t deal-seekers do better running their own entities rather than seeking new capital with all its attendant problems? While Shark Tank producers like to advertise their “decades of dreams,” don’t many dreamers see their dreams obliterated through loss of control? Lori Greiner, a founding host, regularly boasts of her success with Squatty Potty, hinting that other wannabe entrepreneurs end up with no potty to squat in.

Ultimately, the uniqueness of Shark Tank may be compromised by the egos of its own sharks, who were called “Money Tigers” in the original Japanese version, then “Dragons” in the UK edition. One spinoff, Beyond the Tank, already has been launched. O’Leary is hustling a new CNBC show titled Money Court. Other sharks are also trying to exploit their brands: Barbara Corcoran is “endorsing” real estate businesses in towns like Palm Springs.

It’s as though they all sense that even sharks must cash in before other predators steal the stage. Or jump the shark.


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