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13 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Shark Tank

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By the standards of reality television, ABC’s Shark Tank (Fridays, 9 p.m. EST) plays it pretty straight. Entrepreneurs with promising business ideas are shuttled to a sound stage in Los Angeles where they pitch a panel of investors—including Mark Cuban, “Queen of QVC” Lori Greiner, and the occasional Guest Shark—hoping to convince them their product is worth their time and venture capital.

Even if the Sharks decline, getting a chance to display a product in front of the show’s estimated six million viewers is invaluable. We asked some former contestants and one Shark deals curator about the pressure to perform, the merchandise with the best chance of succeeding, and why every segment taping begins with a very awkward moment of silence.


Owing to the allure of getting 10 minutes to advertise your product on network television for free, Shark Tank can receive more than 100,000 applications every season. Some are submitted via the show's website, while other entrepreneurs appear during open casting calls to “audition” for casting agents looking to fill the 100-odd slots for the show’s 31-episode cycles. “Watching people on television gives everyone a sense of, ‘I could do that,’” says TJ Hale, the host of Shark Tank Podcast, which follows up on contestants and keeps a log of show statistics. “But the odds are against you.”


While product pitches are typically aired in 10-minute segments, business owners are often hashing out details with the Sharks for an hour or more. “The first time, I was in there 45 minutes,” says Aaron Marino, who appeared in a season four episode with his Alpha M image consultation business and will appear a second time in this season’s finale on May 20. “The second time was an hour, hour-and-a-half. When you get into the minutiae of business numbers, they cut a lot of that stuff out.”


Business owners who walk through the twin doors and onto the area rug in front of the Sharks don’t get to begin talking immediately: they have to stand in silence for 30 seconds while the production crew adjusts their cameras for establishing shots. “You’re just standing there,” says Eric Bandholz, whose Beardbrand line of facial hair products vied for a deal in season six. “The Sharks are smiling awkwardly. The whole thing is pretty intense.”


Once a pitch starts, it’s rarely (if ever) interrupted for anything, with the Sharks firing off questions and talking over one another to create a perfect storm of faux-boardroom anxiety for the contestant. “There’s no stopping,” Marino says. “If you mess up, you have to keep going. You have all these very dominant personalities going after you, talking over themselves. It’s sensory overload.”


According to Hale, approximately one in four contestants wind up being “scouted” by producers, meaning they’ll be contacted by the show with a cold call. That interest often stems from having a Kickstarter that helps spread word of your product. “It’s kind of like validation,” Hale says of raising capital through crowdfunding. “You might be looked upon more favorably.”


Even though Shark Tank films over 100 pitches per season, the show offers no promises when it comes to airing taped segments: a handful will wind up unused. That means contestants who sink money into advertising or inventory expecting a “Shark Tank bump” could put themselves at risk if they don’t make the final cut, which they might not find out for up to a year after taping. “You get notice you’re going to be on air about two weeks before the episode,” says Bandholz. “You don’t want to invest too much into your business because you could wind up sabotaging yourself if you don’t make it on.”


Entrepreneurs are taken from their hotel to a waiting area, and then to the set. No Sharks are introduced to them prior to their segment. “There’s no access to them whatsoever,” Marino says. “They just film one right after another. I did get to pee next to Robert Herjavec one time, though. All I said was, ‘Hey, see you soon!’”


Once entrepreneurs are done filming, they’re immediately whisked off-set and into a meeting with a show-appointed psychiatrist for an off-air evaluation. “They just want to work through how you’re feeling,” says Bandholz. “I’ve heard from other contestants that they can be devastated by their performance, or by what the appearance might mean for their business. It’s a very intense emotional roller coaster.”


While contestants who accept an offer from one or more of the Sharks seem to have it made, it’s little more than a handshake deal. Owing to the due diligence process, Hale estimates that more than two-thirds of deals that are agreed upon in the show fall through. “It’s more like a first date,” he says. “You go back and find things you don’t like. Sometimes the deal terms change.”


While most of the business boost from appearing on Shark Tank comes during the first run of the episode, the show’s presence on CNBC in repeats doesn’t hurt. “It’s never the same as the initial airing, but we do see a bump,” says Bandholz. “Sometimes they’ll show it overseas. We’ve seen orders from when the show is airing in Spain and Portugal.”


While contestants have demonstrated everything from construction site amusement parks to bed warmers, Hale’s numbers point to the food and beverage industry as being prime Shark bait. Out of the 107 deals Hale has logged, nearly half have been in either the food or fashion and beauty categories. But, Hale cautions, each Shark has his or her own preferences that might not align with the numbers. “Daymond John isn’t so interested in apparel anymore,” he says. “And Mark Cuban is probably not going to do pet food.”


When he received notice that Beardbrand would be featured on the show, Bandholz discovered a surprising—and unwelcome—side effect of the publicity. “Competitors will see that and start advertising more,” he says. “They’ll buy ads on the show for competing products.”


Hale recently interviewed the inventors of the Slyde Handboard, a swimming apparatus that can surf waves using only the wearer’s hand. “They applied for the show three times, and they told me that both times they focused on the product, they didn’t make it,” he says. “The third time, they made themselves the narrative, part of the product. You need to have suspense, intrigue, humor, tension. You can have the cure for cancer and if you’re boring, it doesn’t matter. In the end, it’s reality TV.”

All images courtesy of ABC unless otherwise credited.

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Mill Creek Entertainment
Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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John G. Mabanglo/Getty Images
The iMac Was Almost Called the MacMan
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John G. Mabanglo/Getty Images

After breaking out with its Macintosh line of personal computers in the 1980s, Apple was in a slump. Sales had flagged as Microsoft's Windows operating system made waves. In 1998, the company was set to unveil a product that it hoped would reinvigorate its brand.

And they almost blew it.

According to Ken Segall, the advertising genius behind their "Think Different" campaign, Apple founder Steve Jobs was expecting the iMac to reverse the company's ailing fortunes. Where older Macs had been boxy, beige, and bland, the iMac came in an assortment of colors and had a transparent chassis that showed off its circuitry. The problem, as Segall writes in his new book, Insanely Simple, was that Jobs didn't want to call it the iMac. He wanted to call it the MacMan.

"While that frightening name is banging around in your head, I'd like you to think for a moment about the art of product naming," Segall writes. "Because of all the things in this world that cry out for simplicity, product naming probably contains the most glaring examples of right and wrong. From some companies, you see names like 'iPhone.' From others you see names like ‘Casio G'zOne Commando' or the ‘Sony DVP SR200P/B' DVD player."

According to Segall, Jobs liked the fact that MacMan was slightly reminiscent of Sony's Walkman branding concept for its line of cassette players. (Later, Sony had a Discman, Pressman, and Talkman.) But Segall, who named products for a living, feared the name would take away from Apple's identity as being original. It was also gender-biased, and alienating an entire demographic of consumers was never a good thing.

Instead, Segall suggested "iMac," with the "i" for internet, because the unit was designed to connect easily to the web. Jobs "hated" the idea, along with other suggestions, even though Segall felt the iMac could provide a foundation to name other devices, just as Sony's Walkman had. Segall kept suggesting it, and Jobs eventually had it printed on a prototype model to see how it would look. After encouragement from his staff, he dropped MacMan. With this key contribution, Segall made sure no one would be lining up to buy a PhoneMan 10 years later. 

[h/t FastCoDesign]


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