CBS looks to make "Undercover Boss" an overt hit
Originally Published in Media Daily News
June 17, 2009
By David Goetz
There were some tears. Chills ran up more than one spine. Clearly, CBS had touched a nerve at its upfront presentation with a promo clip for reality series "Undercover Boss." Not easy to do with a roomful of jaded, cynical advertisers.
Still, the visceral reaction among media buyers and advertisers last month may have been low-hanging fruit. The five-minute clip showed a boss aghast that one of his employees - quite literally - didn't have a pot to piss in. Later, he was disturbed that an underpaid, overworked office manager was about to lose her home.
The big boss making the discoveries: Larry O'Donnell, the president-COO of Waste Management, a collection company that traffics in everything from methane gas to the bins on the curb.
The hour-long "Undercover Boss" is being prepped as a midseason show on CBS to run sometime before spring 2010. Cameras capture high-placed executives shedding their suits and then anonymously spending time toiling alongside low-level workers. Along the way, the honchos can get an emotional up-close look at the impact their decisions have on the front lines.
"With all the demonizing of corporations in the press, this could be a nice way to put the human face back on these companies - that it's not just CEOs living in an Ivory Tower," says Patti Ganguzza, president of AIM Productions, a branded entertainment agency.
As O'Donnell went undercover at Waste Management, a trash collector tells him it's a good company, but "not very female friendly" - then displays her on-the-job restroom. "You pee in a can?" a stunned O'Donnell says.
Later, he meets a woman hired as an hourly worker for one job who's doing so many she can't count them - for the same pay. Struggling financially, she's had to put her dream home up for sale.
Each episode has a distinct arc. About 50 minutes in, bosses reveal themselves and apparently claim to have found a measure of religion. They offer employees promotions and other favors, while pledging to change misguided company policies.
The last scenes are edited to be tear-jerkers. In Waste Management's case, literally. "Tears came to my eyes," says an employee after O'Donnell changed a guideline. Separately, he gave the financially strapped woman a raise, helping her keep her house.
"The emotional engagement (among the audience) has the potential to be off the charts," says Melissa Fallon, senior vice president at Davie Brown Entertainment, another branded entertainment agency.
While perhaps a hair-trigger response, some media executives approached CBS soon after the upfront about their clients potentially being featured in the show, Fallon says.
Companies willing to allow the cameras in face a risk. The production house, London-based Studio Lambert, is offering them no control or say in the content, says a person familiar with the matter.
To create drama, frustrated employees are likely to be shown airing grievances, while difficult working conditions are sure to be on display. It's sort of warts and all.
Then there's the potential upside. A company can appear bold; transparent; sensitive; and willing to adapt. A dedicated, diligent work force can be on display. And Fallon says a company could even "potentially squeeze in some brand messaging."
This appears to be feel-good reality TV, after all, looking to leave viewers feeling uplifted a la ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." This is not a show engineered by Fox's stunt-prone programmer Mike Darnell aiming to catch employees laying down on the job (as entertaining as that may be).
Is the gamble worth it? Brand management specialists say it's a painstaking decision, with a host of factors in play.
One could be cost, but people familiar with CBS's and Studio Lambert's plans said there is no pay for play. Companies aren't charged an integration fee to be included. On the flip side, companies can't buy their way in. Producers are looking to make selections - or "casting" as it were -- based on the potential storylines.
Representatives for CBS and Studio Lambert declined comment.
Production of the show is being overseen by Studio Lambert's new U.S. office headed by Eli Holzman, who is credited with developing Bravo's "Project Runway." The show was originally developed for a British audience. And the U.K. version launches this week.
For the show to resonate in the U.S., Steven Kostant, a senior vice president at Fleishman-Hillard, says "it has to be absolutely clear" companies are not paying to be on it. If bloggers or journalists uncover unsavory relationships, it could "taint their brand."
Kostant, who works in brand management, suggests the "undercover bosses" appear at the beginning of an episode and disclose that this is not a sponsored initiative.
It's not clear when CBS will air "Undercover Boss" during the 2009-10 broadcast season. But the producers appear to have a challenge in persuading companies to participate. People familiar with the matter say Studio Lambert has been turned down multiple times, including by competing restaurant chains.
A highly image-conscious Fortune 500 company would be unlikely to roll the dice. "I don't think we'll see the head of McDonald's flipping burgers," says Brad Adgate, a senior vice president at Horizon Media.
A representative for Waste Management - number 201 on the Fortune list -- declined to comment on the company's thinking.
The Waste Management pilot is the only episode that has been shot for a U.S. audience. CBS declined to say how many episodes it would order, which may depend on how many companies with compelling storylines can be found.
Marketers can get a sense how a full "Undercover Boss" episode plays out and what a viewer takeaway might be starting Thursday when the U.K. version debuts. In the premiere, an executive at Park Resorts - which operates vacation destinations - folds laundry, sweats in the kitchen and waits tables. On June 25, comes a second episode with the CEO of construction company Clugston Group pouring concrete and doing other grueling jobs.
(For the show to succeed, employees shouldn't be able to recognize the undercover executive, so using a CEO may be a curious choice.)
Brand management executives say participating in the show could be particularly helpful for companies facing public-relations hurdles -- namely financial institutions, oil companies or airlines. "There's absolutely the opportunity to address image issues," says Davie Brown's Fallon.
Waste Management has weathered some PR storms, including a major accounting scandal that was settled with the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2005. O'Donnell and current CEO, David Steiner, were not with the company when the alleged fraud took place.
In 2007, it was embroiled in a labor dispute that left trash piling up in the Oakland, Calif. area. Earlier this year, it joined others in laying off employees, about 2% of its work force.
But Waste Management has been aggressively looking to market itself as environmentally friendly, partly via a ThinkGreen.com Web site.
Several years ago, Southwest Airlines gambled on a show on A&E, also with British roots, that had elements of "Undercover Boss." Camera crews were allowed to follow gate attendants and other customer-service employees as they dealt with often-angry customers.
With "Airline" -- a multi-part series -- no money was exchanged between Southwest and the network. The airline, however was reportedly able to ask the producers to insert voiceovers to explain certain thorny issues. Southwest's employees for the most part came off as patient and dedicated through the show's run.
For "Undercover Boss," companies may be reluctant to open up if they don't have a top executive charismatic and savvy enough to play to the cameras - something producers wouldn't want anyway. This is not a role for the subdued A. G. Lafley, chairman at Procter & Gamble.
Waste Management's O'Donnell, who posed as "Randy Lawrence" and donned goggles and a hard hat, came across as earnest, engaging and down-to-earth. He was also adept with sound bites. "I didn't think I'd be having these kind of emotional issues riding on the back of a garbage truck," he said at one point.
With some help from the film editors, O'Donnell also seemed skillful with comedic relief. He lamented getting fired from a job spearing trash - even after his "boss" told him "it's not rocket science."
Media executives say for sheer entertainment, the show may have its best chance with companies in industries that have a sharp distinction between the front office and the field.
At Waste Management, O'Donnell had the opportunity to get his hands dirty, literally. A CEO at a retailer could hit the stock room. At a fast-food restaurant, an executive could be challenged to perform, well, fast.
"You have the executives a total world away from the guys actually picking up trash" at Waste Management, says Horizon Media vice president David Campanelli. The same drama isn't likely to be there at a software company.
Studio Lambert, however, may face an additional hurdle in recruiting companies: confidentiality. Highly protective of trade secrets, companies may be wary of cameras picking up even the slightest proprietary technique or system.
Ganguzza, the head of branded entertainment firm AIM Productions, represents Steinway & Sons. But no outsiders are allowed in the piano maker's factory.
Ganguzza says some marketers have declined to consider "Undercover Boss" for similar reasons. "To that end, it's a little difficult," she says. "Even though there are a lot of companies that find it interesting."
But even if "Undercover Boss" finds appealing companies and becomes a breakout hit, it could be a victim of its own success. It may be difficult to keep the tears flowing and spines chilled for long.
After one season, will employees begin to wonder about an oft-clueless person showing up on the job with a camera crew in tow?