Like Startups, Reality Shows About Them Fail Early, Fail Often

“Highway1 is my day job, and I try to get out there and talk about hardware and meet startups,” said co-star of “Bazillion Dollar Club” venture capitalist Brady Forrest.
Syfy

The failure rate of startups is high. It turns out the same is true for reality TV shows about startups.

In the last two months, three shows have launched about founders creating companies. One of them, “Bazillion Dollar Club,” was pulled after its first episode on the Syfy channel drew in just 175,000 viewers, according to Nielsen. “Startup U” is struggling to dramatize the startup experience. “Hatched” is saddled with a Saturday morning slot.

“Bazillion Dollar Club” premiered Sept. 22, starring angel investor Dave McClure and venture capitalist Brady Forrest. It followed startups through the accelerators the two men are known for, 500 Startups and Highway1.

“Highway1 is my day job, and I try to get out there and talk

hardware and meet startups,” Mr. Forrest said. “This was one of the channels I tried.”

The creators of these shows say they are riding an increase in public interest into what it takes to build a company. “Millennials are coming of age without jobs or prospects, so they realize that they have to create their own jobs,” said venture capitalist Timothy Draper, the star of “Startup U,” which follows startups through the Draper University accelerator, a seven-week school for young founders. “Entrepreneurship creates jobs. It is the golden goose.”

The current trend of founders presenting their businesses on reality shows dates back to the 2009 premiere of Shark Tank, in the wake of the Great Recession. The show has grown its audience in part on the personalities of the show’s panel of potential investors—err sharks— including entrepreneur Mark Cuban, who consider offers from aspiring entrepreneurs looking for investments in their businesses, and probe for weaknesses in the pitches. In 2012, Randi Zuckerberg, sister of Facebook Inc. chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, launched a reality show on Bravo, “Start-Ups: Silicon Valley.” Her show focused on the interpersonal drama in six startups in their quest to make it big.

“It would seem natural that tech startup reality television is a trend, that’s what we now think of as the American Dream,” said professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University Robert Thompson.

The number of viewers the shows drew for their premieres. Note: The viewership number for “Shark Tank” is the number of watchers the show has on average for its current season.
Nielsen and WSJ research

The challenge is that the reality of life in a startup—and the people in it—doesn’t necessarily make gripping television. “When it comes to doing a tech startup, there are a lot of things that aren’t that dramatic and televisual, and that could be part of the problem,” Mr. Thompson said. So wait, it’s not all drinking at parties and playing foosball?

“Startup U,” which airs on ABC Family, follows two students from Draper University each week as they try to solve a new challenge, like building a chain reaction machine or surviving in the great outdoors. But the show jumps from character to character. When asked how the show is performing, Mr. Draper said, “I don’t know, but I am starting to get fans!” In August he said on Facebook that he would give $1 million to charities if 1 million people watched the show. That did not happen.

Reality TV shows are under particular pressure to attract viewers, because unlike scripted content, there is little ancillary revenue from international sales, video on demand or repeats, according to MoffettNathanson media analyst Michael Nathanson. “They need an audience to make the math work,” said Mr. Nathanson. “The ratings better be good!”

“Hatched,” which focuses on teens, moms and minority owners, features entrepreneurs creating products that are more consumer than tech, such as waterproof athletic socks and a child safety device. The CW network that broadcasts it considers the “Hatched” Saturday morning slot as educational programming, targeting young adults and children, according to a spokeswoman for Litton Entertainment, the company that produces the show.

“Shark Tank” draws more than 6 million viewers on average, according to Nielsen. The show airs on Friday night, a prime viewing slot. Ms. Zuckerberg’s show debuted with about 700,000 viewers, according to Nielsen. Bravo decided not to renew the series for a second season, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The creators of the shows say they aren’t concerned about their competition. Meg LaVigne, president of television at Litton Entertainment, said there are so many outlets now for TV programming that it’s never a negative to have a competitor in the space. “When you see a good idea, you want to be able to do it better,” said Ms. LaVigne.

Mr. Forrest said he thinks Syfy pulled “Bazillion Dollar Club” because it didn’t resonate with the network’s audience. “That’s the theory, we’re not sure,” he said. The network did not respond to requests for comment.

The first – and only – episode of “Bazillion Dollar Club” focused on Vango, an e-commerce platform for people to buy fine art. After the episode aired, Vango received 12,000 new visitors on their website, and 5,000 new downloads of their app, according to Mr. Forrest. He said the show is currently in discussions with other networks to find a new home.

–Joe Flint contributed to this article.