Crowd Rules: TV Review

Crowd Rules NBC Panel - H 2013

Crowd Rules NBC Panel - H 2013

Mom and pop shops get an admirable focus, but the series lacks excitement, and the competition amounts to mere begging.

CNBC diversifies its new reality programming with a competition series focusing on small business.

With a focus on small business, the competition show Crowd Rules is CNBC's latest addition to its new reality lineup. In Crowd Rules, three business owners compete each week for a $50,000 prize, and are judged by a studio audience of 100, who either have business savvy or are unselectively titled "consumers." The series is hosted by entrepreneur and jewelry designer Kendra Scott, of Austin, Texas, and NY1's Pat Kiernan, who never loses his anchorman patter. Halfway through each show, an expert in the episode's theme -- philanthropy, innovative products and more -- joins the panel to weigh in with his or her experience visiting each of the small business' headquarters.

Though the hosts and guest expert do vote in the three rounds -- first impressions, first elimination and final winner -- their voices are generally augmented or drowned out by the studio audience, who also sample the products and ask the business owners questions that often have more to do with themselves than the competitors. 

The expert panel rewards those who take their advice to heart, but the studio audience has other ideas. In the premiere episode on specialty foods, two of the competitors (Robin Samra of Picklelicious and the Emanuele family of Mr. Green Tea ice cream) grow and change from the advice given. The third competitor, Johnny McLaughlin, of Heartbreaking Dawn, a line of hot sauces, stays firm in his questionable business practices. Johnny is an early crowd favorite.  

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The emphasis on the studio audience voting doesn't do much for the viewers at home. Further, the useless first impression vote just feels like filler: no one is eliminated or rewarded from it, and the mercurial judges and audience change their opinions throughout the show anyway. The studio setting itself is also intimidating and sterile, and there's an uncomfortable whiff of desperation in the air as the competitors plead their cases.

In his book The Wisdom of Crowds, The New Yorker's James Surowiecki proves a crowd doesn't have to equal mob rule; the collective wisdom of the many can do more good than that of the choosy few. In the case of Crowd Rules, that may not be true. Though the judges explain why they did or did not choose certain competitors, the audience remains silent after voting is complete, never explaining why they voted the way they did. What made them, for instance, go against the experts?

The best thing that can be said about Crowd Rules is that it is an advocate for small businesses. The show also acts as an advertisement for the businesses featured, which could be just as valuable than the actual prize money in the long run. 

Like another recent Embassy Row production, The Job, which suffered an early cancellation from CBS, most of those who are chosen to compete seem worthy of winning, despite questionable polish or know-how. But also like The Job, any competition show that lacks celebrity judges, viewer ability to interact, or even the ability to see any competition besides pleading, may not ultimately draw much of a crowd.