Ryerson University professor Sean Wise needed some video with Canadian content for his class on entrepreneurship.
But it didn’t exist. So, like any enterprising entrepreneur, Wise saw a gap in the market and decided to fill it.
Despite a micro-sized budget of about $3,000 per show, he went for big names, lining up such Canadian business icons as clothier Harry Rosen, Dragons’ Den star Brett Wilson, beer mogul John Sleeman and decorating maven Debbie Travis.
Wise and his colleagues couldn’t afford to pay for a host, so Wise filled in as the talking head. The bare-bones set was draped in black and shot at Ryerson. They called the show The Naked Entrepreneur because the idea was to get “the naked truth” from subjects.
What Wise didn’t expect was that the humble, low-budget, student-produced series would be picked up by the Oprah Winfrey Network.
The Naked Entrepreneur will debut on OWN Canada in January. The broadcaster will feature eight, one-hour edited segments distilled from the 18 shows that have been produced by students since 2012.
“Students are getting an incredible learning experience and at the same time getting another check on the resumé with OWN,” says Wise. “Entrepreneurs are not celebrated in this country and I thought there was a real gap to be filled.”
What he didn’t figure on was the show going to a network and the interest it would generate outside the classroom. The series is also featured on Rogers TV, which is airing 13 half-hour episodes.
With The Naked Entrepreneur, Wise had to learn some new skills himself, including how to do a television interview. So he looked up old videos of his favourite interviewers, including the late Brian Linehan of Cityline and the CBC’s George Stroumboulopoulos.
“I learned that the best interviewers make the interview about the subject, that it’s not about you,” says Wise.
The subjects certainly seem relaxed; they appear as if they are in front of a class filled with students, which they are. The low-key atmosphere and backyard furniture on the set also seem conducive to candid conversation, if not visually stimulating TV.
The lengthy interviews, some in the 40-minute range or longer, can be meandering, but are also revealing.
G Adventures travel entrepreneur Bruce Poon Tip says simply that, when he started out, he discovered that “everything I thought about business was wrong.”
Designer Debbie Travis reveals she would never work in a large firm.
“You need to work well in a group. Even if you’re the boss, you have to work with a team,” she says. “And the great thing about a small company is that people will tell you you’re s----.”
Beer entrepreneur Sleeman tells Wise that retailing a product no one really needs keeps him from getting cocky: “It’s not like I’m selling penicillin. You don’t need what I do.”
Besides, he says, there’s “nothing like going bankrupt to keep you humble.”
The idea of entrepreneurship as television entertainment was laughable a decade ago. But then came reality show mogul Mark Burnett with The Apprentice in 2004, which made a star out of marketer Donald Trump.
Since then, there have been many productions devoted to business, including Dragons’ Den, Shark Tank and The Profit.
But Wise’s journey as a television producer is probably closer to that of TV host James Lipton, the former dean of the Actors Studio Drama School in New York.
His non-credit class, Inside the Actors Studio, had him interviewing Hollywood stars in front of a student audience and answering questions on the craft of acting. Lipton’s pompous, professorial style has since been parodied mercilessly by shows like Saturday Night Live. Inside the Actors Studio is now a Bravo Television show seen by millions.
The concept of student-driven television has been taken further in the U.S., where some universities such as Brigham Young have their own channels and even their own scripted television series.
Wise first got introduced to the world of reality TV working as a consultant on CBC’s Dragons’ Den, sharing his expertise on entrepreneurism. He was also interviewed as a potential dragon but didn’t get the role.
But the experience gave him the confidence to produce his own show along with Charles Falzon, chair of Ryerson’s RTA School of Media.
The OWN deal came about after a television executive from Corus Entertainment, which represents the OWN brand in Canada, contacted Wise earlier this year to ask him if he wanted to use some of their shows as teaching materials. It was then that Wise pitched his own show.
“I said, ‘While I have you on the phone, would you mind taking a look at what Ryerson is doing?’ ”
OWN’s acquisitions team liked the show and is paying the school a licensing fee to broadcast it.
“We are excited to bring The Naked Entrepreneur to OWN Canada. The show is produced by Ryerson students and we believe it will fit with our programming and offer an educational experience from Canada’s top entrepreneurs,” said Ted Ellis, a vice-president in the programming and scheduling department of Corus Entertainment, in a statement to the Star.
There’s more money in the production budget from the OWN deal, but Wise isn’t revealing how much.
“Let’s just say it’s not a Star Wars-sized budget. And there won’t be major special effects. But it is enough to allow us to shoot another season.”
Wise says students are looking forward to the fourth season and perhaps even going on the road.
“Not all the best Canadian entrepreneurs are in Toronto, so we are maybe planning a road trip in our future,” Wise says.
“As long as the students keep growing and, hopefully, we teach a few people and inspire a few people along the way.”