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ABC, "Survivor" producer launch bailout program

 Producer Mark Burnett addresses the audience in New York April 17, 2007. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson - Reuters
Producer Mark Burnett addresses the audience in New York April 17, 2007. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
— image credit: Reuters

By James Hibberd

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - ABC is teaming with "Survivor" producer Mark Burnett for a new series that offers a bailout to struggling entrepreneurs.

The network has ordered seven episodes of Burnett's "Shark Tank," an adaptation of the U.K. reality hit "Dragon's Den" in which eager entrepreneurs pitch their business ventures to five multimillionaire tycoons. The pitchmen have to convince the investors (the "sharks") to part with the requested amount of their own money, or they leave empty handed. The format originated in Japan and has since become a worldwide success, with BBC Two's "Dragon's Den" running for six seasons and airing domestically on BBC America.

"Shark Tank" marks the first collaboration between ABC and Burnett, who has popular shows on the other three major broadcast networks. The parties hope the project strikes a chord with viewers given the current economic climate.

"People are looking to be entrepreneurs to get ahead, yet there's no way anybody can go into a bank right now and get a loan," Burnett said. "For these entrepreneurs, these sharks are their last stop."

The team's creative approach to the program has shifted since its pilot was ordered last fall. At first, everybody thought the show needed to feel bigger. The BBC version has the wealthy investors and pitchmen haggling in a sparse loft space. There's no cheering audience, no graphics, no exterior footage. The drama comes from whether the entrepreneur's proposal will survive an intense inquisition, and if it does, whether the sharks will then turn on each other to snatch up the idea.

"We've been excited about the 'Dragon's Den' format for years, but we didn't go forward at first because we thought it felt too small," said Vicki Dummer, co-head of alternative at ABC.

In 2006, the network attempted a similar concept called "American Inventor," which was co-produced by one of the British stars of "Dragon's Den." But "Inventor" was an elimination competition about the process of developing an invention, whereas "Shark" is self-contained episodes that are all about the drama of pitch meetings.

Working with Burnett, the network initially tried to make the show feel like a larger event, shooting a pilot in a huge auditorium and placing the investors behind an intimidating desk, among other tweaks. But most of the changes distracted from what worked so well about the original: the interpersonal tension between ambitious entrepreneurs struggling to convince five strangers to part with their money.

"The layers we added for a big huge show we've ended up peeling back to make the show more like the original," Dummer said. "The core essence of the show works, and they've done a terrific job with it."

No airdate is set, though a premiere sometime next season seems likely. The sharks include Robert Herjavec (who made his fortune in Internet security systems), Kevin Harrington (infomercials), Barbara Corcoran (real estate), Kevin O'Leary (well-known Canadian investor) and Daymond John (FUBU sportsware).

One aspect of "Shark Tank" that will be noticeably bigger than the previous versions: the deals spawned during the pitches.

"We have made bigger deals and more deals in our pilot than (other versions) make all season," Burnett said. "What country on earth is more entrepreneurial and risk taking than the United States of America? Here we have businesses and jobs being created, and it's a great feeling."

(Editing by Dean Goodman at Reuters)

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