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Top of the Food Chain

Reality TV king Mark Burnett speaks about Shark Tank.

This story appears in the October 2009 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Mark Burnett, the king of reality TV, was quick to recognize how entertaining desperate businessmen can be. First he brought the world The Apprentice, and now we're deep into his latest production, Shark Tank. This time, he's pitted venture capitalists (the "sharks") against entrepreneurs (let's call them the "chum"), in a battle to get business funding. We caught up with Burnett just after the show wrapped, with a few questions for the big fish himself.

When did business become a spectator sport?
Well, I think The Apprentice started it on many levels. But certainly, I have to make business entertaining. Otherwise, its forum wouldn't be television. Otherwise, people who had a hard day at work won't want to watch it.
Mark Burnett

Why are you picking on entrepreneurs now?
For our country to get back on track, it's not about the giant businesses, it's about small companies, so the problem is how small companies starting up are going to get financing. The banks are hard-pressed right now to invest in an idea, and I just don't see loans happening. Hence, Shark Tank's philosophy is exciting. Maybe only a small number of companies get funded, but the big picture is the enthusiasm created that will spur entrepreneurs on, reigniting the economy.

So TV is good for America?
Television can help play an enthusiastic part in showing what America is all about.

Can you relate to the Shark Tank contestants?
Yes! I have to go out there and pitch my show ideas and challenge big media companies all the time. I really see myself in their shoes, standing up there. You feel like you're naked in front of these tough investors who want to rip you to shreds--sharks!--and eat you alive.

Sounds pretty dramatic.
It can be funny at times, but you see some sad, sad stuff. Some people are on the wrong track, and they can't even see it. And you're watching people fight for what they believe in.

You once put everything on the line to purchase the American broadcast rights to Survivor. What does it take to risk it all like that?

You just have to have passion. You've got to really believe. The fear of inaction has got to outweigh the fear of failure. You have to feel it would be worse not to try.

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