Discovery Picks Up Competition Series 'America's Smartest' (Exclusive)

David Zelon and Michael Sardo
David Zelon and Michael Sardo
 Courtesy of JAG Entertainment

Discovery Channel has picked up the competition reality show America's Smartest, The Hollywood Reporter has learned exclusively.

The series, set for an April 2015 debut, mixes elements of Shark Tank, Mr. Wizard and College Bowl and will seek to discover true visionaries.

Each episode will offer contestants a challenge, such as finding a way to help a disabled person, improve kids' classrooms or build a smarter automobile. The one-hour episodes will feature five contestants each, until the 10th episode in which the season's finalists will face off.

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"This show is a mashup between people with enormous ingenuity and imagination mashed up with filmmaking and storytelling," says David Zelon, who is executive producing with Michael Sardo. "The show is a 'what if' show, not a 'how to' show, meaning 'what if this could really work?' Not 'this is how we can build something that can work.' "

It was developed and is being produced by Mandalay Media Arts. It was sparked by a comment by Mandalay Entertainment Group chairman/CEO Peter Guber.

"This show grew out of Peter Guber when he was chairman of Sony," says Sardo. "He went to Japan and came back and said to me, 'I just saw the most amazing thing. I thought Sony was filled with engineers creating amazing technology that they then apply to their products.' He said, 'It's the exact opposite. They've got a bunch of people dreaming up cool products. Then when they have something they want to take to market, they give it to the engineers and say, 'Figure out how to make this work.' "

The contestants will be chosen for their story and background. So when the challenge is to improve emergency rooms, it could be a former E.R. doctor or a family member of someone who almost died because of what happened in an emergency room.

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"We're going to ask these genius imaginative people," says Zelon, "about how they would solve certain problems and let them solve it with ideas that we can make work through the storytelling and filmmaking — not necessarily because the technology exists."

Zelon is making his first foray into television after producing a number of movies, including Soul Surfer and the upcoming When the Game Stands Tall.

Sardo is currently a co-executive producer on Rizzoli & Isles and produced Barely Legal on USA Network.

Zelon says they want to "create challenges whereby they come up with great ideas. We help them visualize those ideas … and you see them right in front of you."

Contestants will get the topic a couple weeks in advance and have a producer and film crew following them as they try to figure out what to do. At the end, it will be edited into a package, complete with CGI, for presentation to the judges.

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The producers are looking for sponsors to put up money and resources — from access to scientific labs to auto-company design centers. They will use 3D printers and other visual effects to explain an idea. And while it will look real on TV, it doesn't have to be and may never really exist.

The winner of the show gets a $150,000 grant to further develop his or her idea; and the winner of the cook-off among the final nine get a grant of at least $300,000.

They will face three judges — two permanent (notable but not necessarily famous) and one guest judge — each week as well as one mentor specific to that week's challenge.

Though America doesn't get to vote on this one, producers hope to land a former U.S. president as a guest judge for a challenge on how to get more people to vote in elections.

The show syncs up with the network. "Discovery is all about being on the forefront of big ideas and bringing viewers the most innovative and new content in the market," says Eileen O'Neill, Discovery Channel group president. "What an exciting opportunity to work with contestants who could potentially have that next huge, world-changing idea."

Like a sporting competition, there will be a taped backstory for each contestant, some of whom will have sob stories to tell.

"The audience plays along," says Sardo. "You know they are asking themselves, 'I've always thought if you did this, it could be this.' It's not a show about how to make a better combustion engine. It's things that impact us every day. And you root for people because you understand the story they are bringing to the show."

"I think there are people out there with wonderful ideas," adds Sardo, "and we want to give them a voice and a place to voice those ideas."

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