Mark Cuban is gunning for a 2020 Emmy Award with “Shark Tank,” the entrepreneur reality-competition show he co-hosts on ABC, and the billionaire investor says he’s still as gung-ho as ever on the business-pitch series as it enters its 12th season.
“Shark Tank” just completed the first round of shooting for the upcoming season, which Cuban said took place at an undisclosed hotel in Las Vegas — with an array of new COVID-19 safety protocols even more stringent than the NBA’s “bubble.” ABC hasn’t set a premiere date for Season 12 of the show, for which Cuban is an executive producer.
Cuban, who also owns the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, spoke with Variety about “Shark Tank” and its production restart, the Trump administration’s ban on TikTok, U.S. government policy toward Big Tech, the NBA’s resumption of play, and how the killing of George Floyd has influenced his investing decisions. Below is an edited transcript of the conversation:
“Shark Tank” is going into its 12th season. What’s the timeline on production for that?
We finished our first pod about a week ago, and then we’re going to have another one, I’m not sure of the exact date, where we’ll finish out the season and finish filming… I don’t know the premiere date, but I know we’re supposed to hear what the premiere date is going to be shortly.
Did the show work as well given all the coronavirus precautions you had to take? What was different?
Yeah, it’s very different. [Laughs] It truly was a bubble. You know, being very familiar with the NBA bubble, I can tell you the “Shark Tank” bubble was even more strict. I mean, we were literally kept in our rooms and had to follow a specific path to a specific elevator, following tape on the floor and signs on the wall to go to a specific makeup station.
Then the set was redone, so it had social distancing. Instead of just a straight line with our seats like in the past, it’s kind of curved so that we’re facing the entrepreneurs and have six feet – six and half feet, actually — between each of the Sharks. It’s significantly different in what we had to do to film.
Was it shot in the same studio?
Oh, no, not at all. We were in an undisclosed location, a hotel where we literally were quarantined in the hotel and were not allowed to leave… I think it’s already public, it was at a hotel in Vegas.
But you think it still has the same “Shark Tank” appeal?
Oh yeah… same intensity, I mean, literally, we had to quarantine, the entrepreneurs had to quarantine. And so when the cameras started rolling, everybody was fired up and ready to go – there was a lot of pent-up energy from just sitting in our rooms basically doing nothing in between shoots. So the intensity was off the charts. The deals were good, because the entrepreneurs really were committed to being there having to go through the quarantine. We had a lot of timely type deals, entrepreneurs who created businesses geared toward the pandemic, entrepreneurs whose businesses had to pivot because of the pandemic or whose backs were against the wall because of the pandemic. You get the same “Shark Tank” that you’ve seen but I think the level of intensity was 2X at least.
You’ve been doing this show for more than 11 years. Are you tired of doing it?
No, not at all. Helping entrepreneurs, that’s my thing. That’s what I love to do. I’ve built and sold a bunch of companies, but now this is my chance to help others… The shooting of the show doesn’t take all that much time in the big picture of things, but the message it sends is, the American dream is alive and well, and anybody can start a business and amazing things that can happen to that business.
The show is produced by Mark Burnett, who basically launched Donald Trump onto the national stage [with “The Apprentice”]. Have you had any second thoughts about working with Burnett because of that?
No, not at all. Look, I don’t try to look at the resume. Mark makes his own decisions, and so does everybody else that I work with in any company or business that I do. I’m not going to pass judgment on anybody like that.
Also on the topic of Trump, you’re a fan of TikTok. What are your thoughts on Trump forcing a sale of TikTok?
That’s a big question. That’s a long answer because there’s a lot of things there. There’s the technology, there’s the AI [artificial intelligence] they use, there’s the influence they can create, there’s the universe of people who use it — and that’s changing — there’s the type of content that appears. I can make you an argument in both directions. I don’t have a final opinion on it yet, there’s just a lot more digging I have to do. But it’s not as simple a question as it may seem.
What about Trump’s idea that the U.S. government deserves a piece of the action of the TikTok sale?
You know, it’s crazy in one respect, but it’s not the dumbest idea I’ve heard from him. It’s not the traditional approach to act as an investment banker and take a cut. But whether you call it a cut or call it a tax to enable a transaction, I can live with it… I don’t think it’s a big deal one way or the other.
At Variety’s CES Entertainment Summit this year you said government regulation of Big Tech is inevitable. How do you see this playing forward past the 2020 election?
So there’s a couple things there. One, I think in terms of potential influence on the election by various parties — whether they’re foreign or domestic — one of the things that Facebook in particular does, but all the platforms do, is algorithmic amplification. And it also applies to TikTok, for that matter. What they do is say, “What’s most popular and who’s it most popular with?” And then they amplify that message to an audience knowing that they’re going to make more money that way because they get more committed viewing or interaction.
That approach in viewing is protected by Section 230 [of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which shields internet companies from legal liability for content posted on their services]. And so I think that’s what needs to change. Anything that a platform uses algorithms to amplify a message for should not be protected by Section 230.
What do you think will happen in terms of regulation against social media platforms?
I don’t know. I don’t know that people in politics truly understand it. I don’t think they understand how much AI is involved. What makes TikTok work? Is it because people just love 15-second videos where people like to dance? It’s AI, it’s TikTok’s algorithms. They do a better job than any other platform of using computer vision and AI to analyze what’s in a video and recognizing what’s in that video that’s amplifying video, and then taking that and amplifying it further to make it an even bigger hit.
Part of the reason why it starts becoming an antitrust issue is because artificial intelligence is hard. It’s really hard and expensive to implement and do right. And because it’s so expensive… it ends up being limited to just fewer and fewer companies who are able to do it right. And right now, those are the biggest tech companies.
And so you can try to break these companies up — but you don’t really solve the problem, because the next company that is able to implement AI well will have the same level of success. Two, we don’t have a great AI strategy as a country. Those companies are really the most advanced researchers of AI… China and Russia and other countries have a more organized and sovereign approach to AI [than the United States]. And so when you break up these companies, you are really potentially disadvantaging the United States internationally when it comes to AI competition and the future of our economy.
If Biden wins the presidency, do you think there’s a danger of an overcorrection — that U.S. companies would be at a global disadvantage?
No, no, I think it’s the exact opposite. The strategy Obama-Biden wrote, it was very much a direct approach to increasing government research in AI… A Biden presidency is going to be more science and research driven than what we’ve seen with Trump.
You recently told the New York Times that the murder of George Floyd changed you. What changes have you made in your personal and professional life as a result?
That’s a two-hour question. That’s a very personal question… One thing I will mention that’s related to “Shark Tank,” I’ve significantly increased the amount of investments I’ve made into minority founders and minority communities. I’m easily now, with the things I’ve done this week, past $50 million [invested in minority businesses]. We’re investing, we’re hiring, we’re supporting, we’re providing funding for other funds that are focused on minority communities. Because that’s really where the change needs to bubble up from… They just have not been given the support that they’ve needed in the past.
How do you think the NBA has handled the return to play amid COVID?
I think it’s been great. Just like we saw with the “Shark Tank” bubble, everybody knew what was at stake when we went to the [NBA] bubble in Orlando. I give everybody so much credit, from NBA staff, to Walt Disney staff, to the players, to the teams’ staff, for realizing how much is at stake and how important it is. I don’t think people have recognized that in a bubble, there are no stars. Nobody gets special treatment.
How does the absence of a crowd affect the game itself?
It’s different, that’s for sure. Talking to our players, it’s different… You don’t get the amp from your home-team crowd rooting for you, and you don’t get the amp from the opposing team’s crowd screaming and yelling and heckling you, but it becomes really personal when they play. You see the professionalism and the strength of character and determination that the players have.
You were one of the pioneers in streaming media 25 years ago with Broadcast.com [which Yahoo acquired for $5.7 billion]. Did streaming take off slower than you thought?
Yeah, a lot slower. It took off far, far slower. If you were to ask me in 1995, I would have told you that by the year 2000 or 2002 we would be exactly where we are today. So I was a little bit ahead of schedule, but here we are… Now all delivery of all content is digital, and that’s obviously changed everything.
Now it’s really the Innovator’s Dilemma trying to deal with traditional media, and how they try to hold on and how you transition to all streaming, which is exactly what we always thought it would end up being… I think now that the train has left the station in terms of day-and-date [for movie releases], you’re probably going to see a lot of consolidation in the theater industry. And it wouldn’t shock me to see studios buy out theaters so they have a completely vertical digital chain.
Back to “Shark Tank.” Emmy campaigns obviously are very different this year.
We’re doing all the Zoom interviews, we’re talking to people, trying to get as much leverage as we can to reach Emmy voters. Winning an Emmy, I think, is so important, not as much for the Sharks as it is for all the people who just bust their ass to make that show happen. And particularly now in the pandemic. So few shows are being produced, so few people are working in the industry right now… What we did with Season 11 in inspiring people, hopefully it helps people get through the pandemic. No disrespect to those other shows [nominated in the Emmy’s reality/reality competition host category] — they’re great, incredible shows — but we’re just a little bit different. We inspire people in different ways, and I think that’s so needed right now.