February 12, 2014 7:00am PT by Michael O'Connell
'Shark Tank's' Secret: How the ABC Reality Show Became an Unlikely Smash
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."
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 Cuban. Shark 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.
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."