Why CNBC’s The Profit is so great: reality

A few weeks ago, CNBC debuted a new series into a crowded space: The Profit. Like other makeover shows, it features an experienced person going in to challenged or failing businesses and making it over. The difference here is reminiscent of Shark Tank: Marcus Lemonis invests his own money in the businesses that he’s taking and/or making over.

The first episode felt familiar; the second episode had a totally unexpected conclusion. (Watch it below; all the other full episodes are on Hulu, and a new episode airs on CNBC at 10 p.m. ET tonight.) That’s what’s The Profit is so refreshing, especially because it comes in a package that’s compelling.

While it takes us behind the scenes of business, it doesn’t feel as much like a finely crafted documentary as the also-excellent and similarly titled AMC series The Pitch does. The conceit is more on the surface here, and it feels more raw and unpolished as a result.

Struggling businesses applied to be on the show, and CNBC and the show’s producers vetted the applicants, bringing a selection to Lemonis, the founder of Camping World and CEO of Good Sam. He then chose the businesses he was interested in, and goes in with cameras and limited information, such as how much debt the company has. He’s not obligated to do a deal with them, nor are they obligated to have him as an investor or partner.

One of the surprising parts of the show is that the deal is done with a handshake and is followed immediately by a lot of work, from examining the company’s financial health to changing things like packaging or stores.

I talked to Marcus Lemonis a few weeks ago, and he told me that if anything, the cameras slowed him down. “It’s really a microcosm of how I do business today, and it’s a huge gamble for me to do it on air—huge—because now people see the style in which I do deals,” he said. “I do do everything on a handshake—and I run the risk—and I’m not going to change that—that people will say, ‘Let me see how much I can exploit out of this guy.’”

On the show, Lemonis said, “You’re learning stuff like I’m learning stuff.” That stands in great contrast to other, over-produced makeover shows where, say, a British chef goes in and pours fuel all over a bunch of fires that have been identified by producers, and then leaves to go swear at another group of idiots.

Lemonis told me, “I very rarely am ever critical of other reality shows publicly. But I will tell you that I am not a fan of manufactured and produced and pre-organized processes. Because I think what happens is, you go in, and they throw a little bit of paint on the walls, and they put a tablecloth down and a few pots and pans get thrown in. Or, a deal gets made on camera, and you never know if it really happens or not.” (On Shark Tank, for example, 33 to 50 percent of deals fall apart during due diligence well after taping is over.)

“The reason that it ended up on CNBC is because for me, it’s a real business network, it’s not an entertainment network. It’s a business network that’s getting serious about teaching all sorts of business. That was a good fit for me.”

It’s a good fit for those who want entertainment, too, because the show, while it offers a lot of information about what makes effective businesses, is really compelling. Most of that is because you just don’t know how it’s going to end, because each story wraps up differently. But Lemonis is also a hard-ass, and doesn’t shy away from criticizing employees or their work in a manner reminiscent of Gordon Ramsay on the original Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, a jerk who’s both right and actually seems to care.

Lemonis said he and the network “argued to the point where I said, ‘I won’t do this unless it’s authentic.’” He also said, “Look, I’m a business guy. I’m not an actor. I don’t know how to fake it. Don’t give me a script.” If the deal goes bad, he wants viewers to think, “Oh my god, that dude just got totally screwed. Maybe this is real. This is legit.”

That authenticity is usually clear on camera, and that’s why The Profit works. The best reality television is surprising, entertaining, and informative all at once, and we watch reality TV because sometimes the most unbelievable things—like a guy spending $150,000 on a business he wants to invest in after just a handshake—are the most real.

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