Reality TV has taken on Silicon Valley before, with the boring, unrealistic, and short-lived “Start-ups: Silicon Valley” on Bravo in 2012 that focused more on dating and love triangles than the business and engineering struggles faced in the startup world.
Now, following the success of HBO’s scripted comedy series, Silicon Valley, in 2014 and 2015, reality TV is back in town, with three shows launched or planned for the 2015-2016 TV season.
Syfy’s “Bazillion Dollar Club” premiers tomorrow (see trailer, below). The series follows six startups going through accelerator programs—three in 500 Startups, three in Highway1. I saw a rough cut of the first episode, “Ivee,” about a team building a voice activated home assistant. It’s sort of “Property Brothers” meets “Shark Tank,” here’s an idea for a company that maybe has good bones but needs a lot of renovation—how fast can it be fixed?
Worth watching? Maybe. The product featured in Episode 1 isn’t particularly interesting—essentially, it’s a lower cost Amazon Echo. The dramatic arc was pretty generic; the big questions surrounded whether or not the engineers would get the voice recognition system working properly in time to demo and would the CEO perfect his 30-second pitch—not exactly unique or earth shattering. On the plus, the episode did show engineers who appeared to be really be working, struggling with basic noise reduction issues. And the characters seems genuine; the engineer introduced as someone who doesn’t talk much seems genuinely annoyed by the cameras and indeed, doesn’t talk.
I found myself drawn to a subplot, or as much of a subplot you can have in a 45-minute show. The Ivee founders are clearly living in the Silicon Valley startup bubble, the male bubble, that is, and they come up with a product design that perhaps only men can love. A brief attempt to pull in a few women) to critique it has no impact (not clear who these women are, though it appears they are support staff at a design firm); the team ignores their feedback and decides their “demographic is men” (an odd conclusion, given this is a product they say belongs in every room in the house). We all have heard stories of the techbro that can’t see past his own navel. Bazillion Dollar club does do a good job of presenting that particular reality.
Last month, ABC Family launched its Silicon Valley reality show, “Startup U,” focusing on San Mateo, Calif., startup accelerator Draper University. Startup U has one advantage over the rest in terms of television appeal: venture capitalist Tim Draper, who is willing to be over the top as silly and eccentric as TV requires, shown in various episodes rappelling down a building, jumping in a pool fully clothed, and literally walking through fire. Startup U has impressive representation of women (including a former Miss USA) and minorities—did it really have to show them running on the beach in bikinis, however? The startups here tend to the low tech—ventures are described as “Tinder for sperm donors” and “Uber for nail care”. And the challenges lean towards sophomoric (having the women standing out in Union Square selling men’s underwear and men selling women’s underwear).
Coming in the first half of next year is “America’s Greatest Makers.” This Turner Broadcasting reality show plans to follow a contest sponsored by Intel to build the best wearable tech device. (Maybe Intel thinking reality TV can replace its science fair to build interest in science and engineering.)
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.