February 24, 2020

Ten Years in the Shark Tank

“The Great Recession has, in many ways, defined American life for the past decade. The economic wounds continue to fester, particularly among a citizenry so accustomed to pining for precisely the sort of wanton excess that the Recession’s perpetrators, who walked free, enjoyed and cultivated. Even then, there were signs the criminals wouldn’t really suffer. In August 2009, the reality series Shark Tank debuted on ABC at the height of America’s uncertainty as the unemployment rate rose to 9.7 percent. It immediately became an enduring hit, reflecting our culture’s impossibly messy relationship to the one percent just as we needed a reminder about the power of money.

For the uninitiated, Shark Tank is a show where aspiring entrepreneurs bring their small businesses or ideas to a panel of “sharks,” ultra-wealthy investors looking to become partners. They present themselves with increasingly elaborate pitches, bringing along props, sob stories, groan-inducing dialogue and bits, or even celebrity spokespeople, all in an effort to stand out. They make sure that whether or not they land a deal with a shark, their pitch will air on TV, aiming for the “Shark Tank effect” to raise their profile. Recent seasons have featured sharks like former MLB star Alex Rodriguez, billionaire Richard Branson, and Bethenny Frankel. Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, has been around since the beginning, as has Kevin O’Leary, the outspoken Trump-like king of the show who, in 2017, unsuccessfully ran to be Canada’s prime minister with the Conservative Party on a platform of lowering taxes and regulations.

For its 10th season, subtitled “A Decade of Dreams,” the show has focused on highlighting how the series has enabled the unbridled financial triumph of countless companies, from small beginnings to giant profits. Several pitches this season have featured entrepreneurs talking about growing up watching Shark Tank, as well as the inclusion of a new guest shark, Jamie Siminoff, the founder of the video-doorbell product Ring, which Amazon bought for $1 billion after all the sharks passed on the idea back in season five, marking the first time a former entrepreneur has returned as a shark. These explicit efforts to solidify the show’s legacy also come with indications that the ploy has worked, as children and young adults who’ve grown up on the message of capitalism-for-good now bring their own creations before the panel, like 18-year-old Max Feber and his product, BRUW, a simple way to make cold brew at home. “I’ve been watching since I was about eight years old,” he tells them.”

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