Two hours after Roger Daltrey hoarsely sang, "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss" during the Super Bowl half-time show on Feb. 7, "Undercover Boss" debuted on CBS and is now network TV's first new hit of 2010.
It's the top-rated non-sports event on Sundays, beating "Desperate Housewives" and "Family Guy," suggesting that America loves its bosses more than its wives, husbands and other family members. Well, maybe not, but for millions, “Boss” is one of the last things they watch on TV Sunday night before returning to their jobs Monday morning.
So when Donald Trump's "Apprentice" returns to NBC on Sunday, March 14, with another "Celebrity" edition, it should create an instant rivalry between the two business-oriented reality shows, especially since "Undercover Boss" might be better described as the anti-"Apprentice."
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"The Apprentice" features business overachievers (or in the "Celebrity" editions, achievers in unrelated fields) competing in an executive-suite arena with Trump as judge/referee. When "Apprentice" players come down from the Trump Tower and hit the streets, it's usually part of a marketing challenge. It's big business as a winner-takes-all game.
Many working stiffs may fantasize about making it to the top (although not necessarily working for The Donald), but they also dream about the Big Big Boss coming to their workplace and learning (a) how difficult their jobs really are, (b) how awesome they really are, (c) what a big doody head he/she is, or (d) all of the above.
And that's what "Undercover Boss" does. It pulls CEOs and other bigwigs down from the top of the corporate pyramid and strips them of their status to join their company's foot soldiers in the workplace trenches. They have to do things no MBA program ever trained them for and see how the other half works. If "Apprentice" is called the "Survivor" of the corporate jungle (both shows have Mark Burnett as executive producer/co-creator), it's the people the
"Undercover Boss" works with who are survivors in a much truer sense.
While episodes of "The Apprentice" end with Trump's now signature line, "You're fired," the undercover boss — after revealing his true identity — finishes by rewarding the most deserving employees with prizes ranging from vacations to promotions. The only time viewers hear "you're fired" is when it's being said to the incognito executive.
For example, the president of Waste Management (the oxymoronic name on millions of American trash bins) got fired for poor performance at picking up litter with a pointy stick. And the CEO of 7-Eleven confirmed a stereotype about top execs: They're incapable of making their own coffee.
"The Apprentice" has been considered a public relations goldmine for Donald Trump and his Trump Organization, and many of the challenges given to the players are tied to brands that pay promotional fees for the privilege.
"Undercover Boss" has also been accused of being nothing more than an hour-long corporate infomercial, but some PR experts would probably advise businesses against participating in the show since the production company has full control of the final edit and there are countless people who have appeared on reality TV who insist, "I'm not really like that!"
There have already been plenty of embarrassing moments for the bosses of the featured corporations, ranging from the 7-Eleven boss seeing day-old doughnuts thrown in the trash instead of donated to food banks, to the second-generation CEO of Hooters learning how much more his employees respect his father. But the show's format has the boss doing most of the voice-over narration, giving him plenty of opportunity to make his case.
There's another way in which "Undercover Boss" is different, not only with "The Apprentice" but with most other reality TV shows and most of prime time: It has no ongoing storyline or ongoing cast.
Every week, viewers see a totally different big shot go undercover at a different company with all different employees. Only the show's premise and format remain the same. Very few shows have ever taken the same approach, with the most successful until now being "Wife Swap" and "SuperNanny." And this makes "Undercover Boss" stand out among the season-long competitions and multiseason story arcs filling the TV schedule.
But with a high likelihood of CBS giving "Undercover Boss" the go-ahead for a second season, there's one long-defunct reality show it's now being compared to: "Joe Millionaire," the hoax dating show that had to go to Europe for a second season. Other programs have fallen apart after their covers were blown, but "Joe" is the most notable.
And while "Boss" is really the opposite of a hoax show, deception is still central to its premise — it's undercover, just like the title says. As successfully as the usual cover story has worked ("He's starting a new career from scratch, and the camera crew is making a documentary about guys like him!"), now, most people will see a new middle-aged employee and a TV camera and think, "Aha! He must be an 'Undercover Boss'!"
It won't be easy to overcome that challenge, and a second season may end up looking a lot different from the first. If changes impact the show's winning formula too much, "Undercover Boss" might end up a victim of its own success, and that would be too bad. It's one of the few shows on TV that is both "feel good" and "do good" — and "feel good" is not a phrase that's associated with "The Apprentice."
Craig Wittler is a media writer in central California.