Does Reality Television Need ‘The Profit’?

A series about making money, airing on CNBC, might seem like an unlikely place for fostering positive values.

Season three of The Profit has ended, bringing to a close another run of episodes that work against certain prevailing trends of reality-based programming. CNBC promotes its series succinctly: “Marcus is ‘The Profit’ and will do whatever it takes to fix a failing business — hire people, fire people and even spend his own money.” For those unfamiliar, Marcus is businessman Marcus Lemonis, CEO of Camping World and the man who intervened to save the shuttered Crumbs Bake Shop in July 2014. Lemonis brings to his television series a sort of edification concerned with the bottom line, yes, but it’s also intended to strengthen bonds between families and colleagues.

A series about making money, airing on CNBC, might seem like an unlikely place for fostering positive values. After all, the flashiest show on its primetime programming is Shark Tank, the long-running ABC series to which CNBC has exclusive cable rights. Shark Tank’s formula for success is its combination of audition-like pitches from entrepreneurs with sometimes ruthless investors known as the “sharks”. Though Shark Tank does involve some degree of continuing involvement in the lives of businesses featured, the central activity is a single, tense pitch session that represents an entrepreneur’s one shot to impress these investors. For their part, the investors are not easily swayed by factors outside of the potential to maximize their own financial participation. “This isn’t morality tank,” a shark memorably declared during an episode involving an app that aided infidelity.

One of the qualities that sets The Profit apart from Shark Tank is its overall commitment to the long haul. Businesses that apply to participate in The Profit become the subjects of long periods of shooting that showcase present conditions, Lemonis’s intervention, and the aftermath of the revived business. There’s a formula to the series, inasmuch as the viewer is shown the failing business, then the pivotal meeting between Lemonis and the business owners, the terms of the deal, and the changes made. But The Profit also possesses a couple of built-in accountabilities that ensure good relationships between individuals involved are prioritized above the high drama of the individual moment.

The first of these checks is that Lemonis is investing his own money. With that investment (which varies in amount and/or percentage ownership), he’s buying the right to be in control of the business in transition. It stands to reason that he would genuinely want to create harmonious relationships between those working with him when his money, time, and energy are on the line.

The second condition for answerability, however, has to do with the nature of those relationships that constitute the business partnerships. Many of these business owners are friends and/or family members whose personal relationships bear the consequences of professional stresses. Thus, the present conditions of the business, and the present circumstances being televised, could have long-lasting effects on life outside of work.

Season three features many of these scenarios. The “SJC Drums” episode finds two brothers completely estranged after a falling-out over their drum manufacturing company. In “Tonnie’s Minis”, a husband (Tonnie) increasingly relies on money from his wife and other lenders to keep his cupcake shop afloat. At “Standard Burger”, a group of friends has experienced growing resentment over the treatment of one of their own, a brother who was dismissed from the restaurant. The grandfather, father and son of “Grafton Furniture” want to see a future for their company that builds on past decades of success. And in the “Lano Company”, unsold, unsuccessful product offerings threaten to overwhelm a married couple that haven’t solidified an identity for their business.

In each of these cases, Lemonis advises the individuals to consider both financial and interpersonal solutions for the problems plaguing the businesses. Both implicitly and explicitly, The Profit thematizes the necessity of honesty, respect, and trust among family and friends involved in shared work. Estrangement, dissolution, and divorce are presented as the potential consequences of continuing dysfunction. The apparent goal of The Profit is to have these people thrive both as businesses and as families.

As television, The Profit is mostly tasteful in its dramatization of conflict, which supports the underlying integrity of the show’s goals. So much of reality-based television is rigged to produce bursts of conflict around which the entire hour could be structured. On any given primetime lineup, one could find a group of friends or family members plied with alcohol, set down or arranged in a fixed location, and prompted to argue to the point of violence. Reality TV has absorbed the worst tendencies of daytime talk shows, particularly the sorts of techniques Laura Grindstaff once described in her research about daytime talk shows as “the tactics that producers employ to elicit the desired level of emotional expressiveness” from participants. In fact, many of these type of reality television series now conclude with season reunion episodes resembling daytime talk shows.

The Profit counteracts excesses of manufactured emotional expressiveness by including Lemonis as an onsite mediating presence. He isn’t a producer who’s texting participants to rile them and turn them against one another. He isn’t a daytime talk show host inciting an audience to react to a spectacle onstage. He defies these familiar roles by diffusing conflict when it arises. At SJC Drums and Standard Burger, he brings in the exiled partners and forces the men to move past their grievances and to communicate/cooperate. At Tonnie’s Minis and the Lano Company, he talks with the spouses about information they are keeping from one another and links improved communication with the health of the marriages.

There’s an entertaining design to all of this intervention. One of the points of contention at Standard Burger has been the installation of multiple security cameras that were used to keep tabs on the now-exiled partner. The negotiation over the cameras and the reintroduction of the partner back into the fold plays out with humorous physical blocking of reentries and threatened exits. In the Lano Company, Lemonis takes the husband aside to discuss the useless products ordered by the wife, whom we see eavesdropping during the episode. The shot of Lemonis and the husband standing in a cavern-like space amid the boxes of unsold cosmetics perfectly communicates all of the story strands at play in the episode.

Also significant is that Lemonis walks away from emotional fireworks when it becomes obvious that such fireworks are endemic to one personality or another. He memorably exits the divorced couple hellscape of season two’s “Worldwide Trailers” and the musclehead antagonism of season three’s “Fuelfood”.

A final distinguishing characteristic that separates The Profit from reality television business as usual is the show’s transparency about being television. From the interstitials that announce the application/casting process to the straightforward introductions of Lemonis to the cast members, The Profit reveals the circumstances that led to the content of the hour. This approach contrasts with other business-improvement reality series, which unconvincingly present “surveillance” footage of bad practices and then introduce the helpful hosts as if they appeared, unbidden and unannounced.

The recognition of televisual storytelling most integral to the plot exists in those moments when participants become uneasy about making important decisions in front of the cameras. To its credit, The Profit includes these moments of doubt or dispute in the final cuts of the episodes. Two episodes from season three, “Standard Burger” and “Precise Graphix”, feature scenes in which business owners argue with Lemonis over the perceived necessity to play out emotional and/or logistical discussions in front of the cameras. In both cases, Lemonis acknowledges their comments. However, he remains clear with all participants that nothing on The Profit is done strictly for the purposes of television entertainment.

None of this is to say that The Profit presents an unadulterated or unmanipulated series of events. The format involves conventions and types of artifice without which it couldn’t exist. This is not Direct Cinema. Furthermore, a couple of former participants have expressed concerns about their characterisation on the show and the way in which the show was produced. But the series is to be praised for the higher standards it aspires to and the uplifting results it achieves within a morass of spirit-sapping reality programming.