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"Undercover Boss": For CBS, A Smart Use of the Post-Super Bowl Slot
February 7, 2010  | By David Bianculli
undercover-boss-top.jpgAfter Super Bowl LXIV ends, and after the post-game interviews and final analysis, CBS will attempt to retain as many members as possible of that huge TV audience, and introduce them to a new reality series: Undercover Boss,a program in which the heads of corporation pretend to be new trainees, with cameras along to capture both their performances and their treatment.

As post-Super Bowl programs go, it's a pretty good fit...

The audience left, after a Super Bowl, is largely male and, to generalize a bit bluntly, largely drunk. Subtlety isn't exactly the best bait for this crowd. The best bait is something visual, something kinetic -- or, failing that, something extremely simple to grasp and comfortably easy to predict.


The ultimate post-Super Bowl offering may have been in 2003, when ABC presented a special episode of its series Alias, starring Jennifer Garner as a beautiful spy. For the Super Bowl crowd, this particular episode opened aboard a private jet, with Garner's Sydney going undercover as an escort, entertaining a rich client by sporting a whip and wearing nothing but panties, a bra and a stern expression.

Over the years, there have been more misses than hits in programming after th Super Bowl. The first game in 1967, before it was even CALLED a Super Bowl, was followed on CBS by an episode of Lassie. The first truly successful use of the post-Bowl slot was in 1983, when NBC launched The A-Team.

Since then, the Super Bowl has provided a launching pad to a few great TV series (ABC's The Wonder Years in 1988, NBC's Homicide: Life on the Street in 1993), but has spawned just as many instant flops (NBC's Brothers and Sisters sitcom in 1979, CBS's Grand Slam sitcom in 1990).

Mostly, what the time slot has done right is draw bigger audiences to already successful shows, as with the 1996 NBC "Super-Sized" episode of Friends and Fox's 2008 episode of House. But Undercover Boss, premiering tonight, is the first time the post-Bowl slot has been given to a new series since Fox presented a preview of Family Guy in 1999.


So how good IS Undercover Boss? The premise is perfectly timed in these days of economic strife: Let the big boss climb down from his executive suite, assume a series of menial jobs at the lowest level of his corporation, and listen closely as his trainers both explain and complain. Then, after the training period, comes the big reveal: the trainers are summoned to meet the boss, who rewards some and admonishes others.

What concerns me about this show, at least in the pilot episode shown tonight, is that the obvious presence of a camera crew -- explained to the participants as a documentary being made about the training process of new workers -- makes me question almost everything I'm seeing.


Even if the workers don't know they're dealing with an undercover boss, they ARE aware they're being filmed, and that their boss eventually will see it. So, quite possibly, they may be more patient as a result, or more pleasant -- or, in one case, invite the new trainee to their own house for a nice home-cooked meal. What we're seeing is entertaining. But, despite the name of the TV category in which the series has been placed, is it reality?

However, if you accept that caveat and watch skeptically, then Undercover Boss works nicely.. and stands a very good chance of being the first big new reality TV hit in years. If you stayed, and you watched, let me know what YOU think...




Mac said:

Super Bowl viewing habits in our house:
The Super Bowl is a great time to visit a restaurant, as long as no TV exists (and kid-free). Then a visit to deserted Barnes & Noble and Borders for some overpriced coffee and free reading.
As for the show that follows tonight's game, my wife and I saw a promo for this the other night and she remarked how much she liked the show. Fearing that I was stepping in some nasty maritial doo-doo, I sheepishly asked her how she saw something that wouldn't be on till this night. She is an avid TLC/Discovery Channel viewer,so maybe CBS was ripping off a cable idea. Then she remembered that Oprah gave up an hour to plug this some days ago. Seems like her hour is as good as the real show, maybe better, since some Q&A followed on Oprah. On paper, an interesting idea, not only to watch the hapless boss put on a blue collar and get his hands dirty, but one tenet of good business is the boss calling up as a customer and finding out how his real customers are treated by the hired help. And not to freak out when things go awry. (No Darnold Trump in this one,eh?) At least nobody dies and body parts are put through endless tests to find the bad guy.
As it goes, my favorite post-Super Bowl TV watching was the premiere of "Homicide: Life On The Streets" with Robin Williams. Some channel flipping was required to catch it as the game ended (who won?who lost? who cares?), but it was the start of a beautiful, yet rocky relationship featuring a network and a show better than they deserved. Nice idea for a book,don't you think? Or has that been done already?).

Comment posted on February 7, 2010 2:14 PM

Neil said:

I haven't seen the program yet, and I'm not sure if I will. (This being a good afternoon for a non-football fan to catch Avatar at the local Cineplex.) But...

Not only is there a videography crew trailing around, documenting every snide or abusive comment that anyone makes, but...

* The "trainee" is going to be significantly older than the normal entry level hire, in an era where large companies actively discriminate against older candidates (even if they won't own up to it for legal reasons);

* This "trainee" is going to have softer hands, more poise and better communication skills than a typical laborer;

* This is an era when every major company has a P.R. operation, and a big part of their raison d'etre is to burnish the image of their top officers. They do that with (among other channels) in-house publications, web sites, videos, Powerpoint presentations, etc., and every day is a new opportunity to publish a photo of your friendly CEO's smiling face;

* Every organization has a grapevine, and in these days of instant communication via Internet, cellphone, instant messaging, texting, etc., it's impossible to believe that rumor mill wouldn't pick up on this gambit;

* You'd have to be an especially clueless middle manager not to recognize your CEO walking in the door, especially when he's trailed by a video crew, regardless of the cover story. And even if you didn't recognize him, is it conceivable that nobody at your local outpost did either?

Have I missed any stops on the cynicism express?

Bottom line for me is that this may be a better specimen than your typical reality show dreck, but better dreck is still dreck.

Comment posted on February 7, 2010 2:33 PM

ottoMann said:

You missed the biggest post-Super Bowl launch ever: The Simpsons (yes, they had aired a Christmas Special, but this was the true Premier).

As for whether any reality show is ever anything close to reality, as we all know the very act of observing changes the behavior of those being observed. Add in cameras, and it's effect is magnified geometrically to something that could never be close to reality. Which is one of the reasons I'll always hate "reality TV." (One of them....)

Comment posted on February 7, 2010 10:02 PM

Avi said:

I pretty much agree with your analysis sir, but I happen to live in the area of Long Island where the 7-eleven CEO did his recent filming. I happen to be very close with a few of the employees and I have to say that they had no idea what was really going on and treated him just as they would any new hire, making him clean toilets and stuff. I can possibly put you in touch with one or two of them if you'd like? Of course this was all before the world knew there was a show like this.

[Dear Avi -- This is good to hear. Yes, definitely, have your people call my people. (My people is me. -- David B.]

Comment posted on February 7, 2010 11:50 PM

Rich said:

I remember 2003 well! I loved "Alias" back in the day. The lingerie gag was brilliant because it started off as Garner did a whole entrance wearing red lingerie and at the end the rich guy says- "No, the black one" (a look of stern expression on Sydney)- next the whole sequence starts over with her wearing 'the black one'...then eventually kicking major butt.

If I recall Jimmy Kimmel was just starting out (maybe it was the following year?) and he had a bunch of drunken guests on a special later after show where they cursed a lot and gave beer to the audience (It was VERY early Jimmy)- no one tries anything like that anymore.

Comment posted on February 8, 2010 12:53 PM
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