How "Shark Tank" Perfectly Captures Today's Zeitgeist

When a troubled world collides with a more interconnected one it creates a cultural shift. And sometimes that shift gets its own TV show.
How "Shark Tank" Perfectly Captures Today's Zeitgeist
Image credit: Hiroyuki Ito | Getty Images
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In my book, The Business of Good, I chronicle the wonderful ways social entrepreneurs are using The Great Convergence to change the world. The Great Convergence is the confluence of a more troubled world colliding with a more interconnected one. It has caused a shift in our culture that has given rise to social entrepreneurship's growth. There are many ways to observe shifts in our culture. Here’s one surprising way -- game shows.     

In the winter of 1956 at the height of the Cold War, America was a nation that revered wisdom as much as it did wealth. The projection of our intellect was vital to national security. Much of American life was a demonstration our superiority over the Soviets. Nothing was off limits. Not even television.    

During Wednesday evenings in 1956, the streets of America went eerily silence. Restaurants saw business slow to a crawl, stores were empty, and movie theaters were deserted. Americans gathered around their TVs to watch the popular game shows of the era -- the quiz shows. None was more popular than “Twenty One” which at its peak had 50 million viewers, who were dazzled by the knowledge projected by its contestants. The show perfectly fit into the zeitgeist of the era. 

During that same year, Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, and Bing Crosby filmed High Society, a successful movie featuring the music of Cole Porter. For the film, Porter wrote a song about the rejection of money and greed. Its title would later be misapplied and used for another wildly popular game show that became emblematic of the era in which it appeared.  

The song was titled, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”

On Monday, August 16, 1999, the show that captured the apotheosis of the 90s debuted. On its premiere evening, millions tuned in to watch. “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire” was something of an enigma. The shows title contained a typo that mattered to no one -- there should have been a question mark at the end of the phrase since the words technically formed a question. But in the go-go, tech boom ethos of the turn of the century, the phrase "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" was more of a rhetorical statement than a question. ABC executives found the question mark to be pointless, even though the original British version of the program contained one.    

Contestants were given plenty of help when it came to answering questions. First, they had four choices to select from, one of which was the right answer. When in doubt, contestants could get help through various means, called ‘lifelines.’ If the assistance wasn’t enough the contestant could back out after getting the question and still keep the money they won up until that point (instead of the typical risk-reward decision-making prior game shows required). The show pulled few punches. It was about one thing -- Making Money Now.  

For ABC it was a bonanza. The show only cost $400,000 per episode to produce, while sponsors were willing to pay $300,000 for a 30 second commercial. That translated into a per-episode profit of $6 million. No wonder it ran every almost night. On its first night 7.5 million watched. Two days later, 11.5 million. When it aired on the following Sunday night 15 million tuned in. The show would peak at 36 million viewers.

After a year on the air, something started to happen. The audience started turning away from the program. But not just any audience. The youngest viewers (aged 18-49) were abandoning the program.

When the show first debuted the dot-com bubble was still expanding. The show’s mantra fit in perfectly with the mood at the fin de siècle -- Making Money Now. But by 2002, the show’s timeslot was adjusted to reflect a sign of the times. It was moved into daytime programming.

Ten years after its prime-time debut ABC brought back “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” at its former coveted time slot. ABC hoped for a repeat of its magical run in the late 1990’s. Once upon a time, 30 million tuned in to watch the game show version of Making Money Now. But this was 2009. The show may have looked the same, but times had changed. The only thing missing from this anniversary show was the viewership. 

A fraction of its old audience, 6 million, tuned in to watch. Among the young demographic, the show couldn’t even manage a 2.0 rating. On its final night, after a much-ballyhooed media blitz, only 7.6 million people watched.  In the young demographic the figures were abysmal. The lead-in to the show was an hour-long rerun of “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” which scored a higher rating among young viewers. 

The Great Convergence was already well underway by August of 2009. The economy remained in turmoil. People were not looking for programming about easy money. They wanted something that better captured their zeitgeist.    

And they got it on in the very same evening “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” returned to the air, only it wasn’t that show. It was the new one that debuted after it. 

Lost in the hubbub about the return of a once great and culturally attuned program, was the low-key debut of a new one. Hard work, ingenuity, and deal making were the hallmarks of this show. It was everything “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” wasn’t. It had entrepreneurs as both hosts and contestants. There was no grand prize or million-dollar pot of gold. But there were million dollar investments (and smaller ones too). Contestants walked way -- if successful -- with an investment in their business in exchange for giving up equity. 

After six seasons of being on air, it continues to thrive. The ratings have almost doubled since it launched and on the night “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” said farewell, “Shark Tank” made its premiere. The Great Convergence had a game show it could call its own.