Small-Screen 66 – #66: “American Inventor”
We kick off the countdown with a short-lived reality series which, true to its title, featured American inventors vying for a chance to attract entrepreneurial interest, further develop their creations, and ultimately score a million-dollar production deal.
In each episode of American Inventor, an assortment of inventors would step out on stage, one at a time, and each pitch his or her product before an “American Idol”-style panel of judges. The judges could then ask the inventor questions or make suggestions. Then, each judge voted whether or not to support the invention.
If this concept sounds similar to “Shark Tank,” that’s because it is. You see, American Inventor was produced by Peter Jones, who had been a panelist on a British show (or programme) called Dragon’s Den, itself an adaptation of an even earlier series from Japan. Jones took the concept from Dragon’s Den and tweaked it slightly to create American Inventor (three years later, ABC would officially buy the rights to produce an American version of Dragon’s Den…re-titled Shark Tank).
But Jones’ tweak makes a world of difference. He added an element of competition – Inventors would now not only need to impress the judges; they would also have to out-pitch their fellow contestants. Even better, the competition was tiered, similarly to American Idol or America’s Got Talent. At each level, inventors who had been voted forward would return to the arena, to demonstrate a new stage in the development of their products. For instance, the “Top 12” were each given $50,000 to develop more finalized prototypes, as well as packaging and basic marketing materials. The Top 4 submitted their products to consumer focus groups and collaborated with the studio to produce TV spots. Thus, over the course of the show, viewers got insight into not only the pitch process, but every step of a product’s journey from idea to mass-production.
I only discovered American Inventor had a second season while doing research for this post, which is unfortunate, because season one was one of the rare reality competitions engaging enough to keep me tuning in every week. I always hoped ABC would renew it for another round…and now I find out they did and I somehow missed it. Oh well. Guess I’ll just have to recap season one then, and hope it proves representative of the show as a whole.
The series began with a string of “audition shows” (again, a la American Idol). As with other reality competition shows, these episodes were made particularly entertaining by a handful of oddball inventors hawking correspondingly bizarre inventions. One especially Doc Brown-looking gentleman stepped up, donned a welding mask, then pitched a “portable potato chip smoker” which consisted of a stove connected to a gas pump-style hose which the inventor inserted into a bag of chips, spraying liberal amounts of smoke inside…and into the air…and everywhere.
But sometimes, the performances from these lackluster inventors proved more heartbreaking than humorous. Perhaps the most notable was Marc Griffin, inventor of “Bullet Ball.” Griffin claimed to have spent 26 years of his life developing the “sport” – essentially air hockey without air. He quit his job and sold his possessions so he could continue touring around the country, searching for the throng of eager investors he was sure would make Bullet Ball “the next olympic sport.” After his less-than-impressive presentation, the judges cautioned Griffin not to waste any more of his life on the project, with one saying, “You can lose everything else, but please don’t lose your mind.”
Another of the judges asked, “If you’ve sold everything, what do you have left?”
Griffin sadly sputtered, “I…I have Bullet Ball.”
Personally, I think his biggest problem was that he didn’t let the judge he played against win. Showing you’re good at a game you yourself invented doesn’t win any friends, dude. Also, he never got around to demonstrating “Bullet Ball Extreme.” Now we’ll never know what made it Extreme.
The more successful inventions included some genuinely nifty products. The “unbrella” closed by folding upward and into the handle, trapping water inside so it wouldn’t dribble on people climbing into cars. The “sackmaster” consisted of a heavy-duty shovel apparatus with hooks at the back to attach sandbags, enabling workers to fill the bags more quickly, and by extension hopefully reducing flood damage (this was in the wake of Katrina, remember).
But the big winner was easy to predict from the get-go. The excellently named Janusz Liberkowski (pronounced “Ya-noosh”) pitched the “Anecia Safety Capsule,” a radically new variety of car seat which the Polish immigrant named after his daughter, who had died as an infant in an automobile accident. The seat was inspired by the interior of an egg, and consisted of a sphere nestled inside another sphere. The inner pod containing the baby could rock and swivel, absorbing the force of an impact.
Janusz was endlessly charming, and surprisingly jolly considering his obligatory sob-story. During the finale, each of the Top 4 contestants received live video-calls from exuberant well-wishers gathered in their hometowns. I don’t remember whether Janusz’s “hometown” was actually in Poland or somewhere in the U.S. with a large Polish population, but the man speaking for the group of assembled fans was ALSO named Janusz, and it was great.
As icing on the cake, though, the judges revealed a twist I have yet to see repeated on another reality show. Though only Janusz would be receiving the “million dollars,” all four of the finalists were offered hefty investment deals and partnerships to help further develop their products.
More than many other reality shows, American Inventor seemed to be accomplishing something beneficial – bettering not only the winning contestants, but also the community (by ostensibly enabling the creation of quality products*) and the viewers (by teaching us a bit about design, marketing, and other stages of product development). I miss it.
Shark Tank isn’t bad though. Better than nothing. Like Bullet Ball to American Inventor‘s Bullet Ball Extreme.
*Though I have to admit, I’m still not seeing any egg-chairs in today’s cars.
You can keep up with Brian’s Small-Screen 66 countdown here.