American Inventor shows execution is everything

American Inventor, ABC’s spin-off of American Idol for inventors, had the right ingredients: engaging personalities, emotional investment, and a core concept (evaluating ideas) that every viewing demographic can enjoy. I was skeptical of the show’s storyline potential – iterations of a product could get dull – but with Idol’s Simon Cowell producing, I hoped the show would be well-done and maybe inspire a mainsream wave of interest in inventing.

I lasted thirty minutes before I had to click off (I later endured the rest with the grace of Tivo). How could a seasoned team of producers make so many mistakes? Here’s a rundown:

(note: Make has a full recap of the show with screenshots)

1. Painfully transparent manipulation. Few things offend like blatant manipulation and Inventor unforunately nailed that cold with consistently hokey backdrop music and more crying than a Kleenex commercial. The overkill was especially strange considering Inventor’s most likely loyal audience – pragmatic, technical, and business types with low tolerance for BS. Haven’t all the incarnations of Extreme Makeover and Bachelor saturated the sap market?

2. Too little substance. As inventor judge Doug Hall said, when you have substance, sell substance. Inventor has compelling substance – inventions – which can be shown and judged quickly. Yet Inventor’s two-hour premiere featured only twenty inventions – one invention every six minutes – with more than half the time spent on the inventors themselves. The inventor’s background and motivation is important to build drama and a relationship with viewers, but more than half the show is too much for a show about ideas. Inventor should model Queer Eye, which gets this right with many snippets of funny advice, mixed frugally with dramatic segments about the advisee’s story.

3. Insight lite. The show’s biggest missed opportunity was failing to teach while entertaining. A main appeal of Queer Eye is its didactic peppering of good advice with humor. Inventor could have engaged viewers with insights in several fields (marketing, engineering, finance), but judges instead dismissed ideas with empty critiques like “I don’t see it” or “it’s not good enough”. (Businessman Peter Jones had one rare tip, noting that a consumed product generates repeated purchases.)

4. Inconsistent judging. I’m sure even hardy VCs would get a little bleary after hundreds of two-minute pitches but the judges were inconsistent. The fully-packaged snow globes were unanimously approved while the polished morality video for kids was nixed as too developed. Two contestants were openly approved not for their product but their personality, yet the most impressive inventor of the show, a charismatic and articulate 14-year-old, was voted off because his portable air conditioner for dogs was marginal.

5. Unclear criteria. The show never clearly stated how ideas would be judged. The judges occasionally said innovation and business potential were important but these were not fully explained – does innovation mean the idea can’t be on the market, can’t be previously patented, or just unknown to the judges? Does unit sales, dollar sales, or profit matter most? Do liability or barriers to entry matter? How much does presentation? This may seem nit-picky but without clear criteria, the judging seemed sloppy and random.

It’s frustrating to see a good idea executed so poorly, an all-too-familiar problem in inventing.

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