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'Shark Tank's' Secret: How the ABC Reality Show Became an Unlikely Smash

Hitting series highs in season five and riding a wave of off-net success on CNBC, Mark Burnett explains to THR how it was always the plan for Friday TV's crown jewel to be a slow-burn hit.

Shark Tank Cast Members - H 2014
ABC/ADAM TAYLOR
Shark Tank

A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

ABC's long-term investment in Shark Tank is paying dividends. After five years on air, the Sony TV entrepreneur reality series from executive producer Mark Burnett has achieved a nearly impossible feat on broadcast TV: It's a slow-burn hit. The fifth season is enjoying the show's highest numbers, averaging a 2.3 rating among adults 18-to-49 and 7.8 million viewers in live-plus-seven-day returns.

"It was always what ABC and myself thought would happen," says Burnett of Shark's Friday night dominance. "The show [titled Dragons' Den in other markets] has grown in later seasons around the world."

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Burnett only touched the show after a 2009 conversation with Sony TV's Steve Mosko about revisiting the format, then almost a decade-old Japanese show to which the studio had the stateside rights. The name change was key -- Burnett says Dragons' Den wouldn't register with American viewers -- and so was a network that promised patience. Most foreign iterations of the show hadn't gained traction until their third seasons. 

ABC's third season, which saw a 30 percent ratings bump, benefited from the addition of celebrity entrepreneur Mark CubanShark earned more than $147 million in ad revenue in 2013, according to Kantar Media, and is becoming even more lucrative thanks to an unlikely off-network deal with CNBC. 

Shark repeats are the fiscal network's top show, averaging 276,000 viewers in the key news demographic of adults 25-to-54, beating every show on CNN and ranking as the No. 6 program in all of cable news. And while the network does have a history of reality repeats -- it airs the off-net cycle of Burnett's Apprentice franchise -- there is no comparison in terms of success. Shark Tank tops CNBC's most recent Apprentice run by an astonishing 425 percent.

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ABC scores regular Friday wins thanks to Shark, which hit a record 8.2 million viewers Jan. 24 in live-plus-same-day. It has lifted lead- out 20/20 and allowed the network to program reasonably successful comedies at 8 p.m. It's a bright spot for ABC, which has seen Dancing With the Stars fall to within 5 percent of Shark's ratings while replacing reality chief John Saade with E! alum Lisa Berger in September.

"When I found out we were moving to Friday, I was not excited," says exec producer Clay Newbill. "That's where the network puts you if they don't like you. But I think it reinvigorated Fridays for them and for all broadcast networks."