Why Audiences Love Entrepreneur Reality Shows Like ‘Shark Tank’

Small Business
SHARK TANK - The Sharks -- tough, self-made, multi-millionaire and billionaire tycoons -- will once again give budding entrepreneurs the chance to make the American dream come true and potentially secure business deals that could make them millionaires. They are: billionaire Mark Cuban, owner and chairman of AXS TV and outspoken owner of the 2011 NBA championship Dallas Mavericks; real estate mogul Barbara Corcoran; venture capitalist Kevin O'Leary, "Queen of QVC" Lori Greiner; fashion and branding expert Daymond John; technology innovator Robert Herjavec. (Photo by Bob D'Amico/ABC via Getty Images)

You’re probably familiar with “Shark Tank,” the ABC show where real entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to a panel of equity investors. Since the program first aired in 2009, a slew of similar shows have popped up, including “Food Fortunes” on Food Network and “The Profit” on CNBC. ABC also launched the spinoff “Beyond the Tank” in May. The latest entrepreneurial reality show, “Startup U,” premieres on ABC Family in August. It will follow students at Draper University, a seven-week entrepreneur education program in Silicon Valley.

“Shark Tank” averaged 7.5 million viewers in its most recent season, its sixth, according to the Nielsen Co. Why do entrepreneurial reality shows resonate with viewers? We put that question to some business and media experts.

MORE: ‘Shark Tank’s’ Biggest Deals and How They Panned Out

They inspire entrepreneur hopefuls

Reality shows about entrepreneurs are a form of “success porn,” says Paul Levinson, a communications and media studies professor at Fordham University in New York. Rather than depicting contestants becoming millionaires by chance, these shows feature entrepreneurs earning investments with their novel ideas and clever inventions.

“This appeals to fans who have an idea or two about how to become rich, which they’re sure would work if only they could find the right listener,” Levinson says via email.

They teach lessons about entrepreneurship

Startup UWatching shows like “Shark Tank” and “The Profit” can teach wannabe entrepreneurs about equity capital and how to make an effective pitch. Venture capitalist Tim Draper, founder of Draper University, says “Startup U” will reveal new marketing techniques and ways of thinking about finance, in addition to showing how entrepreneurs can be successful working in teams.

Viewers “are going to learn that a lot of entrepreneurship is just taking that first step and just doing it,” Draper tells NerdWallet. “Then they’re going to learn that it’s hard.”

They give viewers a vicarious thrill

A lot of people view entrepreneurship as a skill that you have to be born with, and that therefore is unattainable to them, says Berna Aksu, a business professor at Saint Mary’s College of California, in Moraga. Watching reality shows like “Shark Tank” lets audiences experience the entrepreneurial dream vicariously without actually taking the risk, she says.

“When people can’t do something themselves,” she says, “they still like to see other people succeed.”

They advertise cool new products

Shows like “Shark Tank” are as much a marketing tool as a funding opportunity for entrepreneurs. “What better commercial than network TV?” says Lisa Hennessy. Hennessy is executive producer of the NBC weight-loss reality show “The Biggest Loser” and co-founder of DreamJobbing.com, a site that advertises unique, short-term job opportunities, such as a photojournalist stint in Norway or three weeks with the Nitro Circus.

Products that gained popularity on “Shark Tank” include Ava the Elephant, an animal-shaped medicine dropper for kids; ChordBuddy, a guitar attachment for novice musicians; and the Squatty Potty, a bathroom step stool designed to promote “healthy toilet posture,” as its website says.

They show underdogs beating the odds

Although entrepreneurship has grown in popularity, it’s still not easy, says Marci Weisler, a creator of “Queen Bee,” a show featuring female entrepreneurs on Ora TV. Audiences enjoy rooting for entrepreneurs’ pursuit of the American dream, she says.

“Shows like these show the struggles and successes,” she says by email, “and that average people have a chance to do extraordinary things and create big business.”

For more information about how to start and run a business, visit NerdWallet’s Small Business Guide. For free, personalized answers to questions about starting and financing your business, visit the Small Business section of NerdWallet’s Ask an Advisor page.

Teddy Nykiel is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: teddy@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @teddynykiel.


Image of “Shark Tank” cast via ABC (from left: Mark Cuban, Barbara Corcoran, Kevin O’Leary, Lori Greiner, Daymond John and Robert Herjavec). “Startup U” logo via ABC Family.