No Edisons Here, Just Embarrassment

In a reality-TV series where participants humiliate themselves to earn praise for their inventions, the result is a parade of freaks

Simon Cowell's bid to be the P.T. Barnum of reality TV continued apace with the two-hour debut of his American Inventor, on ABC. Borrowing generously from the format of his wildly successful American Idol, the show gives would-be inventors the opportunity to pitch their genius in front of four industry expert judges, all in the hopes of winning a $1 million prize and a deal to mass produce their product. It is, as the sonorous host likes to remind viewers frequently throughout the broadcast, "nothing less than the pursuit of the American Dream."

Actually, it is more like a parade of freaks. The debut episode heavily featured the most outlandish, the ridiculous, and the grotesque. One contestant, appearing in a silver space suit offered up his Space Beetle Utopia -- a kind of funhouse for live beetles as nothing less than the next ant farm; another demonstrates her Tizzy Tunnel -- an inflatable plastic tube to place naughty kids, where they can act out their aggression; while another introduced a wardrobe for automobiles. Not surprisingly there is a varied assortment of toilet-related inventions.

Fairly quickly, the freak show element becomes tedious.


  The notion of coming up with an innovation that will not only wow the judges but the American consumer is abandoned early on in the program in favor of manufactured drama and ratings gimmicks. The show can't seem to figure out if it wants to be the modern-day Gong Show or a saccharine tearjerker a la Three Wishes. As a vehicle for innovation, well, that remains to be seen.

American Inventor comes across more like an open invitation for all the crazies to come out of the dark and into the bright lights of TV. When they are given the boot, they seem genuinely stunned that the judges could make such grave miscalculations.

One of the dejected, an equipment operator who did not impress the judges with his invention -- a new input cable jack on an electric guitar -- reacts with a belligerent, expletive-laden rant against them. When a woman who spent $12,000 of her own money to develop her Beddy Pouch (bed sheets with pockets) is told there is already a similar product on the market, she looks like a child who has just been told that there is no Santa Claus.


  With the fifth season of Fox's American Idol serving up 30 million viewers each night it airs, Cowell and his AI producers seem to think they can simply translate AI's success of discovering pop singers to finding the next Thomas Edison (see BW Online, 1/31/06, "Simon Cowell: From Idol to Inventor").

But the bonding element that makes AI work and allows the audience to get behind a Kelly Clarkson or a Clay Aiken is absent on American Inventor. Sure, it's easy to laugh at the man who comes up with a contraption to urinate privately in public, but are millions really going to root for the Dolly Parton look alike selling edible snow-globe kits? The producers' answer appears to be to kick up the swooning music and drop in heavy-handed sob stories in between the zaniness: the man who sold his house, divorced his wife, bet the farm -- all for a chance to reach for the brass ring.

Cowell, who has made a fortune and earned a reputation as the man America loves to hate on AI, remains behind the scenes on American Inventor. He serves as executive producer (and will reportedly receive a third of the profits off of the winning invention).


  That is too bad: His brusque personality -- any personality -- would be a welcome addition to the Inventor firing squad. The four judges: Peter Jones, the British telecom billionaire behind Phones International Group, Mary Lou Quinlan, founder of Just Ask a Woman marketing outfit, Ed Evangelista, advertising guru with JWT, and Doug Hall, inventor and CEO of Eureka! Ranch, appear humorless and exhibit little if any chemistry.

While it's a toss up between the men as to who is vying for the role of the mean judge a la Cowell, Quinlan is often shown teary eyed as she liberally dispenses such pap to hopefuls as "you are what it is all about" and "you are the embodiment of the American Dream." Ironically, she becomes outraged when a hopeful says she wants to be on American Inventor for the "P.R." value.

Indeed, the crass bid for 15 minutes of reality-TV fame is perhaps summed up best by 14-year-old inventor Kyle Myrha, who pitches a car air conditioner for dogs. After charming the judges with his wunderkind routine he pleads with the judges to give him the green light. Come on, he says: "You need a kid, it makes good TV."

Sadly, Myrha doesn't make the cut. And as Cowell himself might say -- and I don't mean to be rude -- but neither does the American Inventor.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE