What Reality TV Taught Me

O.K., it's tv. but dig down and you'll uncover valid business lessons

By Doug Hall

Last year, I played the role of the "truth teller judge" on ABC's American Inventor, a reality TV show. My job was, when necessary, to tell a contestant that his idea was lousy. I met hundreds of investors and would-be entrepreneurs. I also had the opportunity to study the art of reality TV at the knee of a master—Simon Cowell, the star of Fox's American Idol and producer of both NBC's America's Got Talent and ABC's American Inventor. Here are three things I learned that can help anyone who is trying to build a business:


Great reality shows, like great businesses, have a single purpose. In the case of TV, it is to generate ratings. The shows are not about the inventors, dancers, or singers. As one producer told me: "Viewers love to cry and laugh—and it doesn't matter if they're laughing at something that's intentionally funny or if they're laughing when they're supposed to be crying. Just as long as they watch."

In business, it's easy to get confused about your purpose. Is your mission to serve shareholders, employees, distributors, or customers? Be clear about your purpose, and then focus your energy there.


I would estimate that 50 to 100 hours of videotape are shot for every hour of the reality show you see on TV. The actual "show" is created in the editing room. I had the dubious honor of having Simon Cowell tell Jay Leno on The Tonight Show that I was "the most annoying man in America." And that's how I was edited. If I told a contestant, "Your invention is brilliant, but it just isn't good enough for this contest," only the last half of my comment would air.

Business owners also need to go for it. Instead of overthinking which customers might provide the best testimonials for marketing materials, just ask them all. Instead of endlessly mulling your Web content, just start blogging your thoughts and ideas about your industry.


I learned this when I appeared on Barbara Walters' show The View to promote American Inventor. Those two words— "make sparks"—are printed on a sign posted near the entrance to the stage. Sparks create heat, excitement, and energy, and draw viewers. On American Inventor I got into an almost violent disagreement with one of my fellow judges about the originality of a contestant's invention. When I asked Simon if it was right to fight about the issue, his advice was simple: "I'd say the only mistake you made is not having the cameras rolling during the fight."

In business, making sparks means creating dramatic differences for customers. There is no opportunity for the same-old-same-old. To get customers to change their current behaviors you must make sparks; that is, you must create new products and services that are bold and brave.

There is a lot to be learned from reality TV. However, it's also clear that none of the reality business shows, including American Inventor and The Apprentice, has succeeded at quite the level of the song-and-dance programs. Singing and dancing are emotional dreams that require little thought to enjoy. But business and inventing are whole-brain efforts. They involve both details and dreams. The drama of business lies in walking the fine line between genius and crazy. And the only way to discover that place is to examine both the logic and the emotion of your ideas.

For me, the ideal reality show would blend the drama and mystery of Murder, She Wrote with the irreverence of M*A*S*H. That blend is also the secret to success in business—discovering and developing irreverent ideas that solve the mystery of how to excite customers.

Doug Hall is the author of the Jump Start Your Business Brain book series. He's also founder and CEO of the Eureka! Ranch.

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