Survive the sharks, savor the spotlight: How entrepreneurs capitalize on reality TV

Reality shows have become a staple of American television programming, but they are not just about Kardashians and real housewives. There’s a whole genre of reality TV that centers around entrepreneurs.

“Shark Tank” is one example of the TV industry that has grown up around entrepreneurs, but there’s a wide variety of shows — from “The Apprentice,” with former President Donald Trump, to light-hearted shows, like “Diners, Drive ins and Dives,” to shows that seriously attempt to expose and revamp businesses, like “Bar Rescue” and “Hell’s Kitchen.”

It’s not so hard to grasp why these shows make good television. Daniel Horowitz is a retired professor, historian and the author of a book about “Shark Tank.” He said part of why these shows are successful is because they make for easily replicable drama that can be consistently broadcast.

“It’s a half hour. It’s a series of mini dramas that have beginning, middle and ending,” Horowitz said. “There’s some humor, there’s some pathos, some sadness, some excitement. You identify with people. You laugh with them.”

But, what’s in it for entrepreneurs? And how much of these reality shows is, well — real?

Hear more: Entrepreneurs discuss reality TV appearances on the Speaking Startup podcast

Eddie Cupini co-owns the Kansas City Italian restaurant Cupini’s with his father, Franco, and wife, Marissa. Franco was born in Italy and has had an impressive career as a chef, doing everything from cooking for the president of Italy to sitting as head chef at the Ritz Carlton, according to Eddie. Now, the family specializes in making authentic Italian food from scratch.

They were featured on the hit Food Network show “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” which is hosted by celebrity chef Guy Fieri, in 2013, and say they still get business from people who have seen the show. Overall, Cupini said, it was a great experience.

“You don’t get to meet Guy Fieri until you actually go on set. He just wants a natural feel. So it was really cool,” Cupini said. “Like, he was outside, we couldn’t even like say hi or anything, and all of a sudden he just walks in and then the show starts. It made it a really, really cool experience.”

For the show, the Cupinis had to demonstrate for producers the process they go through when making some of the signature dishes at the restaurant. Then they had to repeat those processes with Fieri on the days he filmed with them, so everything was pretty authentic.

However, not every reality show portrays the whole story.

Dani Davis owns the bar and restaurant Crafted in St. Louis. She was on “Bar Rescue,” which is a show based on the premise that entrepreneur and TV personality Jon Taffer visits a failing bar and helps revamp it with some tough love and a pro bono rebrand.

According to Davis, her bar wasn’t failing when she got a call from the show, but knew the national publicity was something she couldn’t pass up, and the bar did need a makeover.

Dani Davis said Crafted, her St. Louis bar and restaurant, was looking for a makeover and marketing help when “Bar Rescue” came calling. | Courtesy of Dani Davis

“I had wanted to rebrand anyway, at the end of the year,” Davis said. “They were going to do it for me for free, and I didn’t have to put the brainpower in to figure out what we wanted to do. So I think that they did a great job in that aspect. And we’ve taken it and we’ve run with it.”

But, she said there’s a reason not every bar on the show is one that’s in serious need of help. According to some TV critics and fan blogs, the show has roughly a 50% success rate.

“If you don’t know how to run your business before, you’re not going to know how to run it afterward,” Davis said.

Davis said the show twisted what happened in the restaurant to make it fit the typical “Bar Rescue” narrative, and that was hard to accept at times. But, again, there’s really nothing that beats national publicity.

“When we did open those doors, we had a line of people,” Davis said. “And we were busy for weeks, you know, and people were coming from everywhere. And the show hadn’t even aired yet.”

More confrontational shows like “Bar Rescue” aren’t the only ones where what’s presented isn’t the whole truth. Even on “Shark Tank,” the actual investment deals are much different than what’s offered on the show, according to Horowitz, the professor and author.

“There are these horrendous fights between the sharks — sometimes they cooperate — but that’s no atmosphere in which to make a decision about committing $50 or $100, or $500 or $2 million,” Horowitz said. “So, sure, afterwards, a significant percentage of the deals fall through, the sharks often want to negotiate up.”

Horowitz said that after the actual broadcast of the show, the sharks put their investments through a more typical and rigorous investment screening. Of course, though, businesses on “Shark Tank” generally benefit from the publicity. And that’s a major part of the draw of “Shark Tank,” like it was on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” for the Cupinis and on “Bar Rescue” for Davis.

“Mere appearance on the show — even if you don’t get an agreement from the sharks, even perhaps, if you fumbled and were laughed off the stage — merely appearing on the show will give you a tremendous boost,” Horowitz said.

Ultimately, whether or not appearing on reality TV is a good choice for the business comes down to the individual entrepreneur, Horowitz said. It’s a long shot to get on a show like “Shark Tank,” which gets about 50,000 applications each year, and features about 110 businesses each season. And getting on to other shows can come down to being in the right place at the right time.

“The odds may be against you, but you can hit it big,” Horowitz said. “Is it worth it? I think that’s up to an individual to decide. And that has to do with allocation of time and resources. But you’ve really got to be passionate.”

Cupini said he doesn’t regret his TV appearances. And even Davis, who had a stressful experience, said she would do it again.

“A lot of people ask me, would I do it again? In a heartbeat,” Davis said. “I would do it 10 times over. No matter what it might cost you personally or whatever, you’ve got to think on a business level. Whatever’s best for your business. Even if it makes you look bad, it’s good for business. Because, like they say, there is no bad publicity.”

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