Canadian Reality Show About Ex-Cons Gives Host Kevin O'Leary an Extreme Makeover

The CBC's conservative flamethrower shows his softer side in "Redemption Inc." by helping reformed criminals start new businesses using his money.

TORONTO - Canadian TV bad boy Kevin O’Leary insists hosting a reality series where he helps ex-cons launch legitimate businesses has given him a second chance with TV viewers.

O’Leary, a hard-edged judge on CBC’s Dragon’s Den and ABC’s Shark Tank reality series, was recently pilloried when he told the U.S. writer and war correspondent Chris Hedges during a recent TV interview: “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you sound like a left-wing nutbar.”

And he drew viewer scorn yet again when he told his co-host, Amanda Lang, on the Lang & O’Leary Exchange on the CBC News Network: “You know, you are an Indian giver with a forked tongue.”

But the CBC’s new reality series Redemption Inc. from indie Proper Television, which is based on an original format from British producer Wide-Eyed Entertainment, will reveal the Canadian left's favorite whipping boy has mellowed after working with reformed criminals.

“I learned a lot about what I didn’t know about ex-cons. I went in with one attitude and I think most Canadians have that attitude, and I came out with a completely different one. It changed me,” he explained.

In Redemption Inc., O’Leary gives ten ex-cons a chance to prove themselves in business, with the winner to receive his support and $100,000 of his own money to start a legitimate venture.

“I think any viewer that watches this show will be changed. It will be very, very controversial,” he added.

And as the ex-cons possibly turn round their lives, the CBC's aiming to restore O'Leary's TV image.

After all, his hard shell, and an occasional tendency to lose his cool on air, is great for ratings at the CBC, but suggesting a Pulitzer-prize winning war reporter sounds like a “nutbar” is not so good for a public broadcaster committed to balanced and insightful journalism.

"Look, I apologized for it and I am sorry, because this isn’t about name-calling. But when you bring an idea that has no merit to me, and you ask me to comment on it, I’m going to tell you it has no merit,” O’Leary said of the Chris Hedges interview.

“And there’s no value in telling me you’re going to fire every single banker in the world, that makes no sense to me,” he added.

The public broadcaster was also forced back on its heels when Hedges told O’Leary he didn’t expect a CBC news show to engage in character assassination.

"If you want to discuss issues, that's fine. I mean, this sounds like Fox News and I don't go on Fox News," he said.

That remark still makes O’Leary bristle.

“I’m proud to be on the CBC and to see the management here represents both sides of every story. This is what’s unique about the new CBC: you get a Kevin O’Leary on it when fives years ago you wouldn’t,” he argued.

“All we do is bring the debate from both sides, and let you as a viewer decide where you want to end up on the issue. That’s very important. That’s exactly what happens in Redemption Inc.,” O’Leary added.

The CBC’s conservative flamethrower insists giving ex-cons a chance to re-enter society as legitimate businessmen represents more than charity or a hand-out.

“What I’ve learned is something unique and is the basis of this show: If you’re a criminal and served your time, the assumption of Canadians, and I was like that, was you’re free to go. You’ve paid your price to society,” O’Leary said.

The opposite is true, however, as ex-cons are treated as lepers by society, unable to secure meaningful jobs, loans, or respect.

The result is, often within two years, ex-cons are back in prison.

“I look at this as a huge problem I want to fix. I’m a Canadian taxpayer. I want to give these people a second chance because I believe they should have it. If that’s considered to be a softer Kevin O’Leary, okay,” he said.