CBS hasn’t had a new reality show hit in several years so when it green-lit “Undercover Boss,” the network only ordered nine episodes, a dutiful sign of caution.
But after screening the show, execs felt it was good enough to launch after the Super Bowl, a platform like no other.
Viewers liked it.
Since moving to 9 p.m. Sundays, “Boss” has averaged more than 14 million viewers a week, a bona fide success in this day and age. The program, which features CEOs working at entry-level jobs at their own companies, has already been renewed for a second season.
And a metro Atlanta company gets the spotlight again, just a few weeks after “Boss” spent an hour with Atlanta’s Hooters. This time, it’s Norcross-based Herschend Family Entertainment, a privately-held company which operates 20 entertainment venues including Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., Wild Adventures in Valdosta and Stone Mountain Park locally.
Joel Manby, former CEO of Saab Cars USA who joined Herschend as CEO in 2003, said he felt like he’d been “withdrawing a little bit and not going out as much” given recent cutbacks. So when CBS approached him with this concept, he jumped at the idea.
“This was an incredibly life-changing experience for me in ways I didn’t expect,” he said. “This re-energized me.”
Manby last fall grew facial hair, put on Buddy Holly glasses and donned a cap to hide his identity. He played captain on a Ride the Ducks boat in Stone Mountain. He hosed down streets at Silver Dollar City and waited tables at a showboat in Branson, Mo. He cleaned fish tanks at an aquarium in Camden, N.J.
And once he revealed who he was, he also didn’t want to just give token rewards to individual employees. “I really tried hard to institute systemic changes,” he said
Manby said it’s heartening to see viewers connecting with the show after the recent economic turmoil and negativity toward Wall Street honchos: “I think people like to see leaders who care about their people and aren’t perfect.”
“I think most workers think executives are aloof and don’t understand their problems,” said Perry Binder, an assistant professor for legal studies at the Robinson School of Business at Georgia State University. “They get a kick seeing them get down and dirty and hope if they see what they do each day, they can improve things.”
To throw off the lower-level employees, CBS pretended to be shooting a documentary about entry-level jobs. With the subterfuge exposed, the network will have to come up with another ruse to keep the show viable its sophomore year.
Marc Berman, who writes for TV for mediaweek.com, said the show is like a corporate version of ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” which has lasted seven seasons.
“It always leaves you feeling good at the end of the show since people are being rewarded,” he said. It’s contrived in a sense, he noted, because truly disgruntled employees are not going to be featured.
Brad Adgate, research director at media consulting firm Horizon Media, said it’s hard to say how long this show could last. It could be like “Heroes,” a meteorite. Or it could last, like “Extreme Makeover.” For now, “it’s performing better than CBS ever imagined,” he said. It’s even beating ABC’s “Desperate Housewives,” once a dominant player on Sunday nights.
“Undercover Boss,” CBS, 9 p.m. Sundays