It is this conviction—the can-do, anything’s-possible, expansive American spirit of the entrepreneur—that animates The Big Idea with Donny Deutsch, which airs at 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. ET weeknights on CNBC. Gossip doyenne Liz Smith dubbed the show “Oprah at night.” As characterizations go, one could do worse.

“There is no inspirational stuff on TV like what Oprah does during the day for mostly women at home,” Deutsch says. “I’m trying to do that at night for young professionals, or people at any stage of their life who want to get going, go after their dream, and make millions.”

Deutsch himself is a born showman—if anything, your 82-inch flat screen isn’t large enough to capture his ebullience. Even in breaks in taping, he’s cracking jokes between sips of Diet Coke, wiggling to the disco music pumped into the studio.

“You have a big personality,” I say to him at one point in our interview.

“So I’ve been told,” he rejoins.

“Well, that’s the good way of saying it,” I add.

“What’s the other way of saying it?” he asks, smiling.

“Hypothetically, maybe some might think of you as arrogant or egotistical,” I tell him.

After confirming that his feelings aren’t hurt, he says, “Look, here’s what you learn, and it’s a theme of my show. There are people who have very fresh ideas, or who do it differently—there is always a chorus of naysayers.

“Because when something is different, when you’re out of the box, the traditional perspective is, ‘No, you can’t do that!’ Or maybe it’s different because it redefines others,” he points out. “Whenever you’re blazing any kind of path, doing things your way, very successful, putting a stake in the ground—you know, some people get a little threatened by it. It comes with the territory. Show me any successful person who trods their own path, and there are naysayers.”

But now, he’s enlisted his ego for the show, and for what he believes is a great cause. “What I’m doing, I like to think, is helping people,” he says. “I’m very happy to do it. Anybody who has a problem with me now, it’s hard to understand why. But you’re never going to be all things to all people. And that’s what I teach people about branding and advertising: you don’t have to be.”

The Big Idea with Donny Deutsch is a calculated hybrid of formats. The show runs in power-punch segments, some of which have a deliberately cheeky game show aspect. The gaming spirit incorporates segments like “Will It Play In Peoria?” where Deutsch poses the question of the viability of a newly invented product to a crowd in a diner in … you guessed it. Another such segment is the recently minted “Elevator Pitch,” where an aspiring entrepreneur has a one-minute interview with an angel investor: Can he or she seal the deal?

Interview segments featuring both famous and non-famous guests are a dominant element of the program. The non-famous guests tend to be self-starting entrepreneurs with inspirational stories. The roster of the better-known runs the gamut from Dan Rather to Daymond John, founder and CEO of the urban clothing line FUBU, to Top Chef’s Padma Lakshmi to actor Matthew McConaughey. The eclectic nature of the guest lineup is part of the show’s raison d’être.

“We’ll combine a celebrity or a billionaire with the little entrepreneur starting in the basement, because it’s all about this community of people going for the American dream,” Deutsch says in his office. “So I love that I can start out with an actor, but he’s talking about success and how he got there. Then you go into a little woman who created a candy business out of her basement. It’s that world together, from Bill Gates to the little guy. And that’s what’s different about this show. So whether it’s with a politician, or a celebrity or a billionaire, we’re lensing it through lessons of success and then bringing them on down to the little guy starting out, and it’s a very inspirational hour.”

Even though Deutsch has stepped away from day-to-day involvement the client-service industry of advertising, he is still selling a product—a positive sense of hope and optimism for anyone in or aspiring to be in business. But one notable interview went markedly off-message.

In October 2007, conservative author and larger-than-life personality Ann Coulter came on The Big Idea. She’d been on the show before, Deutsch points out, and the two had gotten along swimmingly (his favorable comments about her legs are on the record for posterity).

“I pride myself on the fact that the show is purely positive,” Deutsch says, speaking almost contemplatively. “Most of cable is just people screaming at each other. We’re pure positivity. That is not her MO. But I said, you know what? We can work with her business model, and say we’re going to teach people how to build a brand and make money by being contrarian. Okay? And I wasn’t going to fight with her, it wasn’t a political debate; she’d been on before, and I said, ‘I’m not fighting with you.’ And most of the thing was like that. It was talk to try to really teach people, whether or not you agree with her, we’re going to show people the Ann Coulter model.”

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