After a plum post-Super Bowl showcase, CBS's new reality franchise "Undercover Boss" stood on its own last week, drawing the network's largest adults 18-49 audience for the Sunday, 9:00/8:00c slot in over five years. This week the series turns its attention to 7-Eleven as Joe DePinto becomes the latest CEO to go undercover mission to examine the inner workings of their companies. Our Jim Halterman spoke with executive producer Eli Holzman to get his impression of that initial big audience, the differences between the U.K. and U.S. versions of the show and if there's my crying going on in front of or behind the cameras during filming.
Jim Halterman: Congratulations on the numbers for the first airing. How did it feel to get that timeslot in the first place? It was quite a coup!
Eli Holzman: It was quite a coup! On the one hand we were absolutely elated, beyond thrilled and it represented such a vote of confidence in the show by the network and to work incredibly hard to make something that we're enormously proud of but you never know. You never know how it will be received so that indication meant that at every level at CBS, the show had fans and everyone had the same response. It's also one thing to have an idea for the show and another thing to go out and make it and have the experience of seeing how it effects people and how it's touching them emotionally and positive and funny at times. It felt very special to us so we were thrilled to get [the post-Super Bowl slot] and then one breath later it was sheer panic. It was the episode that would be seen more than any other episode than probably any of us would produce in our entire careers so we had to really make sure it was great. We went back to work immediately, rolling up our sleeves to make sure not a single i wasn't dotted and all the t's were crossed.
JH: How did the show make it overseas from where it originated in the U.K.?
EH: My partner, Stephen Lambert, created this show and sold it to Channel 4 in the U.K. and they ordered a two-episode cycle, which is the British way. They launched Wife Swap the same way with a very small order. We used early footage from their first episode to cut a sizzle reel to sell it here and went out and pitched it not long after we started this company in the U.S.. We made our rounds and it was at CBS where the tone and spirit of the show that we wanted to produce was appreciated. They really appreciated that we wanted to do something positive and uplifting and something everybody could relate to.
JH: What were the differences between the U.K. and American versions?
EH: The point of the show is the same. We collaborated closely with our colleagues in the U.K. who made the show and my partner Stephen oversaw the production there and had a very hands-on role here, as well. The basic methodology of going out and finding companies, finding people and documenting the story was the same. Some things were a little different. American audiences expect more substantial production value than I think a British audience is accustomed to and I'm not sure if that's a result of our higher budgets or are our taste as Americans. One principal difference is that in the British version, the boss doesn't reveal himself to the entire company at the end of the one-on-ones with individual employees. We felt for an American audience you wanted it to be a big celebration and the whole company would want to know. Here we've added the element where the boss goes not only after having met with the individual employees that he/she worked alongside of but then screened clips of their experience for everyone else. People get an enormous kick out of that and it's a big morale booster across the company and it's something the bosses have gotten back to us and said they really valued it as an experience so we feel we're on the right track with it.
JH: With Larry in the first episode, he was so nice and relatable but are all the bosses so pleasant and open to whatever task they're ordered to do in their undercover work?
EH: I'd say they're as different as their companies. There are a set of skills that allows a person to rise to the level of boss of one of these companies of sufficient size that is appropriate for our series and those skills are represented in different ways with each different boss that we film with. There are people that are much more analytical and brilliantly incisive and others who are dynamic and personable leaders. People who are thrilled at the opportunity and others who shy from it but they are obviously all game and they have the confidence in their company to know that this is something that is going to be good for them and good for the business and good for their employees but they are quite different and their journeys are somewhat different.
There are some common threads, of course, and for all of them the thing that has been really gratifying for us to hear is that they had a genuine experience and that's something that's very important to us. We ask that they go in and work a full shift and really work in the shoes of the people that they are shadowing and the jobs that they are experiencing so they are not just getting a photo opp. Maybe a job looks really easy in the first hour but in hour six after you've been on your feet all of a sudden it becomes really challenging so we want them to have that full experience. Every single one of them has come back afterward and said 'Our company is better for this experience. Thank you.' I just got an email from one of the bosses and he said 'It wasn't that these were issues we were unaware of but they were issues that we weren't focusing on. Because of the program and because of the experience of going undercover we focused on them and our company is better because we needed to."
JH: So each boss's experience gives him or her the personal feel of what goes on way down the ladder, right?
EH: Absolutely. To speculate a little bit, we all have to prioritize and we deal with the fire burning closest to us so if you have quarterly earnings coming up and that's the single most important thing to your stock price or share holders, then you're really focused on that and that's going to be a priority. Then if you're going to go undercover and spend time and you know there's a good chance your experience is going to be televised then it's going to be a bigger priority to see how we're treating our people.
JH: What are the workers told so they don't get thrown by the cameras?
EH: This will evolve now that the show is airing and more people are aware of it, we're as honest as is practically possible because we don't want to mislead anyone. Workers are generally told that we're filming for a TV series - a documentary or reality series - that is going to air on the network. Generally, it's about someone trying out new jobs and they understand that.
JH: In the opener, Larry from Waste Management is surprised at how his own emotions were stirred up but were you and your fellow producers surprised at the emotional reactions that came from these big bosses?
EH: To be honest, it was a surprise for all of us. As producers who sort of make documentary television or reality television you deal with stuff a lot. There were times when we're crying behind the monitors in the next room watching what's unfolding and I think for all of us the emotional impact was surprisingly potent. I have my own theory about it and I think all of us crave recognition on some level. Most of us work hard and a lot of the great stuff that each of us does in our job or our daily life... nobody is there to see it or appreciate it but we yearn for it, to be recognized, so when you see that happen for another person it pulls at a heartstring that each of us has. I must have watched that Waste Management episode at least 50 times and every single time when Jacqueline's lip starts to tremble as Larry tells her how great she is and that's she's going to be promoted and she says 'this meant so much for me because my hard work was recognized'... See? I got chills just telling you that!
"Undercover Boss" airs every Sunday at 9:00/8:00c on CBS.