Shark Tank

American workers haven't had it easy these days, as they deal with high unemployment rates and home foreclosures. What better way for them to escape their economic woes than to watch a ­reality show where the stars are a bunch of one-percenters?

That's why they're tuning in to ABC's Shark Tank, which has quietly grown into a hit with close to 7 million viewers each week. The show, in which eager entrepreneurs pitch their new product or service to a panel of self-made ­moguls who compete to invest, is the most watched program on Friday night among advertiser-coveted 18-49-year-olds; several times it even tied with the network's reality veteran Dancing With the Stars in the demographic. Not bad for a series that sounds like something you'd find on CNBC.

Shark Tank debuted in the summer of 2009 and started slowly in the ratings. "When you hear the premise, you don't think, 'I'm going to tune in to see that,'" says executive producer Clay Newbill. "I always tell people, if you watch an episode, you're hooked."

Kevin O'Leary, Shark Tank's extremely blunt venture capitalist, nicknamed "Mr. Wonderful," believes the show has grown in popularity because it inspires a wide range of viewers in these tough times. "What you're watching on Shark Tank is the pursuit of freedom," he says. "There used to be a perception that if you wanted a safe career, you worked for a big company, stayed there for 25 years and got a pension. That's a lot of crap. There's more risk now being in a big company as they downsize and jobs are taken offshore. If you have any entrepreneurial streak in you today, you say to yourself, 'I'm going to take risks and have the potential to become wealthy and create my own business.'"

This season, O'Leary, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, real-estate mogul Barbara Corcoran, branding expert Daymond John, technology entrepreneur Robert Herjavac and inventor Lori Greiner will shell out $12.4 million of their own money to get a piece of the enterprises presented on the show. Even contestants who don't get backing benefit from the network TV exposure, but it comes at a price: They give up 5 percent equity to the show's production company in exchange for their appearance. But that hasn't deterred 36,076 millionaire wannabes from applying this season.

The Shark Tank premise has been around since 2001, when it was introduced for Japanese TV, and is known elsewhere around the world as Dragons' Den. Sony Pictures Television, which owned the U.S. rights, had been shopping the idea for five years when they presented it to Mark Burnett. The reality producer responsible for bringing Survivor and The Voice to America knew of the series from his visits to England, where relatives had been raving. It also connected with him on a personal level. "I came to this country with $200 and an American dream," he says. "This nation was built on small businesses and ideas. What can be more American then trying to find the next Post-it Notes?"

Jeremy Liew, a managing director at Lightspeed Venture Partners, is a real-life shark who counts himself a fan. "We love seeing the companies that succeed in getting an investment," he says. "And we love to catch up with them later and hear how they've grown and prospered."

This year's ratings bump prompted ABC to add three more episodes to the original season order of 22 — including a Christmas special airing December 4. That night's performance will help ABC executives determine if the show can attract a bigger audience on Tuesday, when more people are home to watch than on Friday. Success could mean chasing another show off the night. But then it is, ­after all, called Shark Tank.

Subscribe to TV Guide Magazine now!