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After circling Friday competition for years, ‘Shark Tank’ strikes

The 'Sharks' hear business pitchesdecide fund aspiring entrepreneurs. Mark Cuban (from left) Daymond John KevO'Leary Lori Greiner Robert Herjavec decide

The "Sharks" hear business pitchesand decide to fund aspiring entrepreneurs. Mark Cuban (from left) Daymond John, Kevin O'Leary, Lori Greiner and Robert Herjavec decide "Shark Tank" contestants fate. | ABC

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Updated: January 8, 2013 6:22AM

After a sleepy debut in the summer of 2009, “Shark Tank” is reeling in a record number of viewers this season.

The reality show that has budding entrepreneurs trying to convince a panel of deep-pocketed business gurus to open their checkbooks is the most-watched primetime program Fridays among 18-to-49-year-olds — the demographic equivalent of chum to advertisers. Despite being scheduled in television’s Friday night death slot, “Shark Tank” has managed to draw not only a big audience but an affluent one, boasting the fourth-highest median income among viewers of any series on the major nets this season.

This week, the network tested the waters by airing an extra episode on Tuesday, a more popular night for TV viewing. “Shark Tank” devoured its Fox sitcom competition with 6.9 million viewers. The show netted its second-largest audience, even though it faced a formidable foe in NBC’s “The Voice.”

“It’s caught on,” said prolific Chicago inventor Lori Greiner, a former guest shark who plays a bigger role during the current fourth season, appearing in roughly half of the 24 episodes. Her fellow sharks include brash venture capitalist Kevin O’Leary (a k a “Mr. Wonderful,” whose blunt persona makes for fun TV), real estate mogul Barbara Corcoran, technology innovator Robert Herjavec, fashion expert Daymond John and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, an outspoken billionaire who was promoted to series regular last season.

These self-made one-percenters listen to a parade of entrepreneurs trying to get the sharks to buy into their idea for a belt buckle that doubles as a beverage holder or a Christmas tree rental service. If the sharks like what they hear, they fork over their own money in exchange for a stake in the business. Seeing the sharks take a bite out of each other as they fight amongst themselves is often just as entertaining as watching people pitch their hearts out.

Greiner estimates she’s invested more than $3 million in “Shark Tank” projects. Some have paid off handsomely, like the magnetic eyeglass holders she bought into last season — a simple contraption she says logged more than $4 million in sales in less than a year.

They’re not all success stories. An entrepreneur pitching his Plate Topper food-storage invention this season caused a feeding frenzy among the sharks, with Greiner at one point offering him 10 times the $90,000 he’d asked for. His slippery negotiating style soon turned off a lot of the sharks, who uttered the dream-crushing words, “I’m out!”

“I loved the product so I forged ahead anyway,” said Greiner, who settled on giving the Plate Topper guy $90,000 for 8 percent equity. “Afterwards he was as difficult, if not more difficult, than he was during the episode. It’s a no-go.”

No stranger to turning an idea into an empire, Greiner has created 350-plus products, from jewelry organizers to kitchen gadgets. Many of them she hawks on the cable TV shopping network QVC, where she’s hosted her show “Clever & Unique Creations by Lori Greiner” for more than a decade.

“I think I’ve brought a big audience,” Greiner said about “Shark Tank,” which was nominated for its first Emmy this year. “I have a big QVC following and I have a big young, female following.”

Good timing has helped with the success of the series, based on the Japanese hit “Dragons’ Den” and produced for the U.S. market by reality show virtuoso Mark Burnett (“Survivor,” “Apprentice”).

“With the economy, people are looking for ways to quit their day job and find a way to be an entrepreneur,” Greiner said. “They learn from the show.”

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