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October 8, 2015

Three Key Factors in the Success of 'Undercover Boss'

by Allison Waldman, posted Apr 16th 2010 5:02PM
undercover_boss_cbs_logoSince landing the cushy debut time slot after the Super Bowl to launch its run, CBS's 'Undercover Boss' has been an unqualified success for the network. In fact, in nearly every Sunday since its premiere -- with or without the lead in of a sporting event -- 'Undercover Boss' has showed well in the ratings.

The season finale on April 11 was the number one program in the 18-49 rating, the one that TV execs covet the most. Therefore, you can understand why 'Undercover Boss' easily earned a second season renewal. It won't be a mid-season drop in, either. You watch, it's going to be on the CBS upfront schedule for the fall.

Last year when CBS let us see what they had planned for 2009-10, the screener for "Undercover Boss" looked promising. But what is it about this reality series has worked so well with the viewers that it's now a genuine hit for CBS?

michael_rubin_undercover_boss_cbs1. Catharsis. Basically, it's fun to see how a highly-paid executive who has every comfort on the job, including drivers, private jets, big leather chairs and damn good coffee, going through the paces like a regular working Jill or Joe. Seeing the CEO of Roto-Rooter having to deal with backed-up bathroom pipes or watching the Waste Management top guy pick up trash just makes you feel good. That's right, you get your hands dirty and see what it's like. We can also relate to how tough it has to be to be thrown into that position. Talk about being like a fish out of water.

In the second season, the producers plan to get some Wall Street CEOs to go undercover and deal with the grunt work. You think if they have to really deal with people face to face about their kid's college fund being wiped out by a bad stock investment they might grow a heart or show some compassion? Any banker or investment group that wants to improve its image, however, should step up because 'Undercover Boss' is very good at putting a good face on a corporate profile. Wal-Mart is a company that desperately should take part!

2. Balance. There's a fine line between a reality show being too schmaltzy/sentimental and cool/detached. Some shows thrive on bringing on the waterworks, making the viewers tear up about the plight of the people on the show. There are tears on 'Undercover Boss,' but generally speaking is isn't as manipulative as a lot of other shows.

The young man working at the Branson amusement park who gets a scholarship to go to college at the end of the show and pursue his dream of designing rides for the company is heartwarming. He was crying, but as a viewers it was more of an "ahh" moment than a time to bawl. Sometimes it's the CEO that does the crying, which is also good to see.

3. Timing.
Could there have been a better time for a show like 'Undercover Boss' to appear than this? In this era of people struggling to hold onto their jobs or being laid off or fearing that they can't make ends meet, 'Undercover Boss' sends an affirmative message about business really caring for the employees.

A few years back, this may not have resonated, but today it does. Viewers want to believe that the CEO isn't just a number-cruncher who doesn't know what the employee is going through. It appeals to our better angels, so to speak. We want our CEOs to be human, even though if you've been canned it's the last thing you believe.

Final Thoughts. 'Undercover Boss' could get a lot better in season two. The formula is a bit too stagy. Every program ends with the CEO revealing to the workers whom he really is, and invariably, doling out some goodies to the person in the form of a new position, a training program or even a van for the guy who coached a youth basketball team. It would behoove the producers to find new ways to present that, or maybe offering the entire company something positive from the experience, not just the individuals.

It would also be great if just every now and then, the boss could encounter a bad employee and at the end of the show, give that person a lecture. It nearly happened on when Michael Rubin, founder and CEO of GSI, an e-commerce company, worked with a phone rep who was rude and uncooperative with a customer. At the end of the hour, he should have fired her. Instead, he scolded her and the crawl revealed that she left the job soon after. It was a missed opportunity, one they shouldn't miss next season.

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On another note, I'd like to know how when the CEO's tell their upper management what's going down, we don't get to see the trickle down theory take effect. You know darn well those managers tell their employees to be on their best behavior whilst the boss is playing his game. They don't want their part or section of the factory to look bad, or they will lose their jobs too. I lost interest in this show after the first two episodes due to this very fact.

April 18 2010 at 8:21 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Could there be a more manipulative, predictable show on TV? The correct answer to that is "no!" The rigid formula removes any real sense of spontenaity or honesty.

How come these CEOs all have to change clothes in the same locker room? Why do they have to stay in crappy motels when nobody would know where they are staying anyway? When Joe or Jane Employee is whisked far away to corporate HQ, do you really mean to tell me they haven't been given any reason?

This is little more than a transparent PR opportunity for companies to try to seem sensitive to their employees in tough times. A few token employees benefit as a result.

Please, next season break the formula. Let each story develop on its own, rising or falling on its own merits without pre-scouted employees and locations. In other words, try to bring just a touch of "reality" to your reality TV show instead of such a heavily scripted product.

April 18 2010 at 2:12 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Gordon Werner

so please explain to me how season 2 will work? the ruse is up ... people aren't going to fall for the documentary crew following an entry level worker thing anymore.

April 17 2010 at 2:03 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Gordon Werner's comment
Brent McKee

from what I am given to understand some of the episodes from this season were shot after the first episodes of the series had aired. If people didn't figure it out then, when the show was new and really being pushed, what makes you think they'd be likely to figure it out when a second season takes place.

More to the point, I think there may be a psychology at work that has people thinking something like this: "Sure, there are bosses who 'care' enough to try something like this, but whoever runs the company I work for wouldn't take the time to come down and see what it's like in the trenches."

April 17 2010 at 6:41 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I wouldn't be surprised at all of the lady from GSI was actually fired. Think about it from a legal perspective, unless they've signed some sort of ridiculously all-encompassing waiver firing her on national television could bring about a number of lawsuits. Best to let the nation think she's just been given a talking to and soon after "left," when in actuality she was let go.

Really enjoyed the show though, looking forward to season 2. It's quite interesting to see businesses we frequent, use regularly or use and don't even know it in these types of situations as well. It's usually entertaining to see what's going on behind the curtain.

April 17 2010 at 1:10 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Nancy Martin

Rant all you want but there's no new show I look forward to watching each week (other than The Good Wife) than Undercover Boss. I love everything about it and there hasn't been a week that I haven't ended up in tears. What I particularly like is showing the rest of the country that there are great people out there working in all of these mundane jobs. It's about time that we can look at a show and be proud of the Americans being featured. There's so many good, hardworking people in this country and it's time they were showcased. I just don't know how they can do a second season without the employees of each company becoming suspicious when they're being filmed.

April 16 2010 at 8:49 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Oh and I think this show is way way more contrived and formulaic than you're thining. I got tired of the 'fake drama' of the boss getting caught. Um...so what. Maybe it would break up the monotony of history-board reveal-visit good store-learn about someones family-reveal-party. And you know these companies painstakingly pick each moment and each worker. Sometimes it feels too much like an ad for the company.

April 16 2010 at 8:10 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Personally, the parts that resonate with me are when the CEOs have a human moment, when they realize the people working for them aren't just numbers on a spreadsheet but real people with real problems. In their ivory towers, many upper-echelon folks never have that experience, and to me, it's the best part of the show.

April 16 2010 at 6:53 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I have worked for several companies over my 20 year career and there are more lazy, stubborn, & rude employees than they are airing. I definitely agree in rewarding hard work & loyalty to the deserving individuals, not to the "branch" as a whole. The guy from Roto-Rooter who was only rewarded with the opportunity to share his struggle with alcoholism deserved more.

April 16 2010 at 6:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

the only way a Wall Street firm can participate if the CEO goes to a branch in the middle of the country to work as a bank teller...doubt an investment banking unit or investment management will have employees who don't know who the CEO is

April 16 2010 at 5:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

They really do need to find a way to change things up a bit. I enjoyed this show for a while, but stopped watching it after 4-5 episodes because the formula didn't change at all from week to week.

Also, it really seems like this show took about 20 minutes of footage and stretched it out for an hour. Between the "here's what you'll see for the next hour" montage at the start of the show, the "here's what you'll see coming up in the next segment" pieces they run before every commercial, and the "here's what you might have missed earlier" segments following the commercials anything that might be relevant to the show ends up getting shown 4-5 times. I hate repetition, and I hate having my hand held while trying to watch a simple TV show. I don't have ADHD and I don't need to be reminded every 60 seconds to keep watching the show that I'm watching. This isn't the only show to do this (Apprentice and Who do you Think you are come to mind too) but it seems to be the worst. I would always watch this show on my DVR and after fast forwarding though all the useless parts, it rarely took me more than 15-20 minutes to get through an episode. Seems to me if they really have a show worth watching, they wouldn't have any trouble putting together an actual 42 minutes of footage to watch.


April 16 2010 at 5:29 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Nacho's comment

I couldn't agree more. I'm so sick of 'coming up...' and then they blow the best parts. Then you already know what's coming and you're seeing it again. And the recap halfway through a two hour show.

I don't think it's about less show so much as thinking it will retain viewers or something. It's annoying.

And let me also rant while I'm here - we have a thousand channels. When is a network going to air a fully uncensored feed? No bleeps or blurred nudity. I mean it won't happen all the time, but I'm an adult and we have all this technology. I can handle the f-word.

April 16 2010 at 8:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Erica H.

Oh my goodness, you are so right. It was like watching the same show every week and yes, it worked for awhile, but did get very boring and was a little forced feeling.

April 16 2010 at 9:54 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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