'Shark Tank' secrets: How the reality show is changing during the pandemic

Bill Keveney

We've seen bubbles in shark tanks. Soon, we'll see "Shark Tank" in a bubble.

Mark Cuban and Barbara Corcoran, shark investors on the popular ABC entrepreneurial competition, spoke to USA TODAY separately about adjusting to business (not) as usual in the COVID-19 era, from shooting episodes in a quarantined Las Vegas bubble to planning for an Emmys night with no in-person ceremony. Season 12 of the unscripted series premieres Oct. 16 (8 EDT/PDT).

Real estate executive Corcoran, Dallas Mavericks owner Cuban and fellow sharks Lori Greiner, Robert Herjavec, Daymond John and Kevin O'Leary are nominated for reality/competition host, with the series going for its fifth win as structured reality program during the Creative Arts Emmys (FXX, Sept. 19, 8 EDT/5 PDT), one night before Jimmy Kimmel hosts the Primetime Emmys on ABC (8 EDT/5 PDT).

Corcoran and Cuban open up about how the pandemic has affected their Emmy plans, filming of the show and "Shark Tank" entrepreneurs:

'Shark Tank' investors Mark Cuban, left, Barbara Corcoran, Kevin O'Leary, Lori Greiner and Daymond John will not be seated this closely when a pandemic-influenced Season 12 premieres in October.

Question: With no glitzy Los Angeles gathering this year, how will you celebrate Emmy night?

Barbara Corcoran: I'm going to have (a party) at home on my terrace (overlooking Central Park) in New York. The invitations are already out. In the pandemic, we are limited to 20 people in my home. Everybody's coming in formal attire. Everybody will be six feet apart. I have a fabulous new dress, bright yellow with little rhinestones. I'm going to have a big red carpet from my front door to my terrace. We are going to do the Emmys just as good as if we were in Hollywood.

Mark Cuban: I'm going to sit here at home with my family (wearing) a T-shirt and shorts and I'm going to scream at the TV. 

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Q: What was filming in a quarantine bubble like?

Cuban: It was very, very, very strict. We had to quarantine for several days when we got there. We couldn't leave our rooms. It was analogous to what the NBA was doing, only stricter. With the NBA, they could walk outside, go fishing. There were little patios we could go out on, but no walking around outside. The entrepreneurs had to quarantine for an extended period in order to be able to present to us. But it was worth it.

Barbara Corcoran says some 'Shark Tank' entrepreneurs have suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic, but others, including Comfy, have thrived.

Corcoran: The first concern was health. We were tested all the time. No one tested positive. Everyone was so secure and safe there. We had plenty of space (for social distancing). The area we shot in was the size of eight airport hangars.

Q: What was different on set?

Cuban: With the social distancing, we couldn't hug the entrepreneurs after we did a deal with them. The space between the sharks was much wider. Instead of just being a straight line of the five of us, it's curved a little bit around the entrepreneurs.

Corcoran:  Even though we were spread 15 feet apart, it was pretty remarkable how all of it came together and felt so normal. On the regular show, we can sometimes have a hard time hearing each other, if you're on one end and Mark is talking and then Robert talks over him on the far end. Because of the (extra) distance, we all had miniature microphones. So, as people spoke, they were speaking right to you. It made the job much easier.

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Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban says 'Shark Tank' quarantine protocols were even stricter than those used in the NBA bubble in Florida.

Q: Did the pandemic influence the show's vibe?

Corcoran: It was far more intense, not because of the health issues and the threat of getting sick, but because the entrepreneurs that came to set were hungrier than I've ever seen in my life. Part of it was because they already came through a terrible time, the pandemic. Usually, you get the feeling the entrepreneurs want to get an investment as an option. This time it was so different, like a last chance. Very often, they were on the last leg of their business. It added such an intensity to every pitch and every negotiation. 

Cuban: There were products that were pandemic-related. We had companies where the pandemic had really torn them apart from a business perspective. 

Q: With so many businesses suffering, how are previous "Shark Tank" entrepreneurs doing?

Cuban: Out of the 150 "Shark Tank" deals I've done, there were probably 15 that have really been hit hard in a negative fashion, where they had a retail component or they weren't as strong online as they needed to be. We really had to work with them, but in all but maybe one or two cases, the entrepreneurs have really stepped up and recognized they had to accelerate digital or change the marketing, change how they approach customers. In some cases, the pandemic has helped them. I've always pushed my companies to be strong digitally and really agile and persistent. 

Barbara Corcoran, left, Daymond John, Mark Cuban, Kevin O'Leary, Robert Herjavec and Lori Greiner are nominated for a hosting Emmy this year.

Corcoran: Probably a quarter of them have gone out of business. And roughly a quarter are almost twice as strong as when they went in. It's been interesting to watch the difference. The entrepreneurs that went under, I couldn't move them off first base. The entrepreneurs that did so well hit the floor running.

One of my most successful companies is Comfy, (which is) an oversized sweatshirt blanket. I think 15% of sales were online, 85% in retail stores. I thought they would go out of business, but they immediately started selling online. Overnight, their sales dropped by 80%, but within one month they were up by 80%. The pandemic helped because people were spending so much time at home and they want to be comfortable. They started ordering more Comfys to snuggle up on their couch and watch TV. 

Q: Was it tough to have the pandemic influence the show, since so many people watch TV for escapism?

Cuban: People want good news. They want to know that in the midst of this there are positive stories, people fighting through, businesses breaking through. They want to know that if this continues longer than expected that there is hope. There's excitement that there are going to be new kinds of businesses started. If we can motivate people to start businesses, particularly after the negative economic impact, that's a beautiful thing.