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It may not pull audiences in the millions like Canadian Idol, but CBC's reality TV show Dragons' Den, which begins its second season (10 episodes) Monday, is quietly carving out a healthy little niche for itself.

The concept - borrowed from Britain, which borrowed it from its originators, in Japan - is dead simple.

In any given hour, a series of would-be entrepreneurs parades before a panel of five "dragons," all self-made business executives. Collectively, they're worth billions. The entrepreneurs are all convinced they have discovered the next big thing in their field - a new product or business service. All they need is a little financial help and marketing moxie.

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The dragons, who know just how tough making it in business can be, are all skeptical. Nevertheless, they're there to ask tough questions and, if they like the idea, are prepared to invest their own money in the venture, in exchange for a piece of the company.

Both the dollar amount invested and the percentage of equity are negotiable.

The challenge facing the presenters, then, is to convince these hard-headed tycoons that they have both a sound business idea and the skills needed to see it to fruition. Most fail, walking away empty-handed and, quite often, ridiculed for bad business thinking.

The show is hosted by the CBC's Dianne Buckner.

What makes it work is the genuine human emotions involved. In some cases, the "pitchers" have devoted years to their pet projects, investing life savings, sometimes ruining relationships and marriages. They often see the show as a chance to vindicate themselves and their ideas. Should they give away 50 per cent or more of the company to people they've just met?

The dragons, too, have something at risk, their own cash, and they're motivated purely by the scent of more of it - the chance to get in on the ground floor of a potentially hot new business. But they can be ruthless and derisive in evaluating the presentations and the presenters. The editing, of course, milks the tension and builds authentic drama.

In the new season's first episode, for example, Vancouver fitness instructor and engineer Oswaldo Koch demonstrates a core training fitness device, to be sold via U.S. shopping channels. He wants $300,000 for 30 per cent of his company. All the dragons are initially intrigued, but balk at Koch's $1-million calculation of the company's total worth. And Kevin O'Leary, a software billionaire turned investment guru tells Koch that his abs trainer doesn't pass one critical test: "What happens if you get hit by a bus? You're the guy to sell them, but you're the only guy. For that reason, I'm out."

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In fact, all the dragons decide to take a pass, although at the last minute, dragon Robert Herjavec offers Koch $300,000 for 100 per cent of the company. He declines.

O'Leary, who also appears on the Business News Network's Squeeze Play, is the most acerbic of the five dragons, unafraid to tell the pitchers how terrible their business idea is or how they're wasting their time.

Among the ideas floated this season are businesses based on selling advertising on bikinis, a Winnipegger trying to sell language lessons via telephone, a woman selling diapers for household pets, and a Belleville, Ont. businessman who created an expandable bag for waste product disposal. Only one walked away with a deal.

Of the 50-odd projects presented during the 10 episodes shot this past August, the dragons did agree to invest in 10, anteing up $3-million of their own money. The winning ventures are believed to include an on-line currency exchange website devised by two B.C. university students that offers consumers a significant break on transaction fees, and ujeans, a wholesale manufacturer that makes custom-sized blue jeans.

The manufacturer, Daniel Feuer, wouldn't confirm the investment - he had originally asked for $250,000 for 50 per cent of the business - but said four dragons expressed keen interest in the enterprise.

The CBC's executive director of network programming, Kirsten Layfield, says she's optimistic the second season can build on last year's success.

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After opening with a modest 219,000 viewers, Dragons' Den managed to generate an average audience of 367,000 for its eight shows, peaking at 547,000 in November. Those, of course, are first showing figures; cumulative numbers, from repeats, are higher. Indeed, according to Layfield, the show scored as high in the ratings in repeats as it did for the original broadcasts.

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