Tribeca TV Festival feted ABC reality juggernaut Shark Tank, which launched in the depths of the financial crisis in 2009 and is set to start its 10th season next month.
Five of the “sharks” who evaluate entrepreneurs on the show — Mark Cuban, Daymond John, Barbara Corcoran, Laurie Greiner and Kevin O’Leary — joined executive producers Clay Newbill and Yun Lingner for a panel discussion. (The sixth regular shark, Robert Herjavec, was absent due to a schedule conflcit.)
A lot of ground was covered, but things got interesting when the moderator asked Greiner and Corcoran whether they could envision a time when the panel of judges would be all-female, a sign of progress in the corporate world.
“I’m really in favor of gender equality. So that’s almost, I think, going too far,” Greiner said. “Everything in life should be very 50-50, male and female. Women should have as much opportunity as men.”
After joining the audience in applauding Greiner, Corcoran joked that because she does “95% of the work in my house, I think the panel should be 95% female.”
O’Leary noted that most of his returns from Shark Tank investing have come from businesses run by women. “They’re better at mitigating risk for a whole host of reasons,” he said. “They say if you want something done, ask a busy mother. There’s something to that.” Compared with men, he said, women tend to set more realistic targets and achieve them more consistently.
Cuban took the conversation in a different direction. “It’s not just about gender,” he said of assessing management. “It’s also about ethnicity, where you’re from, perspective, life experiences. Everybody brings something different to the table.”
While it didn’t get a mention onstage, Cuban has recently taken responsibility for decades of sexual harassment and misogyny in the operations of the NBA team he owns, the Dallas Mavericks. He personally pledged $10 million to women’s organizations and gave an apologetic interview to ESPN.
The panel did not include any audience Q&A portion, as other sessions have at Tribeca.
Talk of gender politics was as close as the hour-long session got to making news. Even so, the session was a feast for fans, detailing backstage details about the pitch process, how the show is shot and how it has evolved since it started. The show’s return to ABC on October 7 will be its 200th episode.
Producer Mark Burnett, who has clashed publicly this month with Tom Arnold over another one of his reality blockbusters, the Donald Trump-hosted The Apprentice, did not make an appearance at Tribeca.
Newbill and Lingner said roughly 170 pitches are picked from about 40,000 annual submissions. Of those hopefuls, nearly all are flown to LA, where they deliver hour-long presentations during intensive 10-to-12-hour shoots in June and September. Only after those auditions are captured on set do producers whittle down the final roster, selecting the several dozen eight-minute segments that will populate the season.
“It’s a really nerve-wracking process,” Lingner said of the actual pitch while the cameras are running. “I’m really surprised more of them don’t bomb.”
Asked about what criteria are used for selecting candidates, Newbill and Lingner said commitment and charisma play key roles. But when they create the mosaic of aspirants — none of whom has been described beyond their first names to the judges — they are mainly looking for an overall balance. “We never know what they’re going to like,” Lingner said. “We just throw ideas out there and they act like they’re at a sample sale.”
Several of the panelists — especially John — decried the phenomenon of well-capitalized startups using the show as a promotional platform. “That offends me,” John said. Lingner said Series A-funded companies (which can have as much as several million in the bank when they go on the show) are part of the “whole landscape of business” that the show is aiming to capture.
Shark Tank’s evolution was evident in a short sizzle reel that played before the panel, which showed the initial set, complete with stacks of cash. and a connected wooden desk, like some corporate version of the Starship Enterprise. Newbill called the first set “horrific — we couldn’t look at it anymore” during post-production.
The show’s ratings began in a much more modest range and the show frequently changed timeslots. As the economy improved, though, so also did the chemistry on set. Cuban joined in the second season. O’Leary from the beginning has been content to play the foil, as he did onstage at Tribeca.
Burnett said “we’re looking for an a–hole,” O’Leary recalled of his entry into the show, whose Canadian iteration he has also starred on. “I said, ‘I’m your man.'”
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