Undercover Boss presents for viewers an inventory of the service, clerical, and manufacturing jobs that are today performed by U.S. labor: garbage collectors, food processing plant workers, warehouse workers, fast food restaurant servers and cooks, airline and cruise line workers, and so on. In the series’ first episode, the undercover boss sorts garbage on fast-moving conveyor belt (“Waste Management” Undercover Boss. CBS.February 7. 2010).

From the second episode of the first season, the President and CEO of the restaurant chain Hooters, during his undercover stint (“Hooters, Undercover Boss. CBS. February 14, 2010).

Also from the from the series’ first season, food preparation workers from the episode “7-Eleven” (Undercover Boss. CBS. February 21, 2010).

Kitchen workers from the episode “White Castle” (Undercover Boss, CBS. February 28, 2010)

Warehouse work from the episode “Oriental Trading Company”, from the series’ third season (Undercover Boss. CBS. March 9, 2012).

In a tightly edited sequence reminiscent of competitive gamedoc shows where contestants must race to perform assigned tasks, in an episode from the series’ second season the CEO of Frontier Airlines races to clean the interior of an airplane (“Frontier Airlines.” Undercover Boss. October 17, 2010).

From the third season, the CEO and President of a sign company working undercover on a cherry picker (“Fastsign.” Undercover Boss. CBS. May 4, 2012).



Workers' confessions
and the reality TV series Undercover Boss

by Lyell Davies

In among the modern game shows, test of endurance shows, court shows, gamedoc competitions and the other various subgenres of reality TV,[1] [open notes in new window] a subgenre of shows focus on the lives of U.S. workers. These include the following:

  • the white-collar workers seen in The Apprentice, America’s Next Top Model, or Does Someone Have to Go?
  • and the blue-collar and pink-collar workers depicted in Deadliest Catch, Sandhogs, American Chopper, Dirty Jobs, and Undercover Boss.

The usual U.S. media landscape commonly shows few images of working people. Rather, many Hollywood films, situation comedies, and other entertainment productions distort our perception of wealth and who has it by portraying our social world as heavily populated by middle class professionals, despite the fact that by income and occupation the majority of Americans occupy working or lower-middle class positions. Within our media world, blue and pink-collar reality shows seem to establish a contrasting view and suggest that the lives of working Americans deserve to be seen on the screens of our televisions or digital devices.

As one among these worker-focused reality TV shows, the series Undercover Boss presents for audiences an inventory of the service, clerical, and manufacturing jobs performed now by U.S. labor: garbage collectors, food processing plant workers, warehouse workers, fast food restaurant servers and cooks, airline and cruise line workers, and so on. The series’ panorama of jobs bears comparison to Barbara Ehrenreich’s bestseller Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America  (2001), for which the author went undercover to experience and document the persistent economic hardship faced by low income Americans within our post-industrial information economy. Like Ehrenreich’s book, the TV series Undercover Boss seems to offer the possibility that the dire economic circumstances faced by tens of millions people would be exposed in the media. But while the series does offer us a glimpse of life inside a variety of U.S. workplaces, it does not do so in a way intended to advance economic justice. Instead, while each episode of Undercover Boss reveals something about the conditions faced by U.S. workers, the series is completely unlike Ehrenreich’s undercover project. That is, Undercover Boss offers no sense that the conditions it depicts deserve wide-reaching reform.

In each of its episodes, the TV series depicts individuals who work long hours for inadequate compensation, cannot afford comprehensive health care or education for themselves or their families, and face a range of other travails. They are powerless to achieve anything close to the American dream. While depicting these scenarios, the series also manages to nullify their significance and offers viewers nothing by way of a systematic examination of the social and economic crisis that ultimately provides the show’s bread and butter. As Steve Striffler observes of Undercover Boss,

“Reality TV has now delivered the epic confrontation that Marxists have been pining for. Capitalist and worker come face to face in front of millions of viewers!” (2012:83).

But the outcome of this confrontation is not the one Marxists may have expected:

“Although the show seems poised to tap into the anticorporate moment and has been framed by the producers as a probing look into the socio-economic gap between the working class and those who give the orders, Undercover Boss moves uncomfortably between shameless corporate public relations, a capitalist love story, and manipulative treatment of employees who had the misfortune of appearing on the show” (Striffler 2012:83).

In this essay, I’ll explore how Undercover Boss is able to provide viewers with a glimpse of conditions within  blue and pink-collar workplaces of the early twenty-first century United States, while ensuring that hard questions about why these conditions exist are not asked. The show does this by delivering to viewers an array of dramatic devices and emotive, individual-centered scenarios, in place of an analysis of the harsh economic conditions we see. Constructed in this way, the series offers an illustration of Pierre Bourdieu’s argument that television can hide what it appears to show. Television depicts what the public thirsts to see, Bourdieu argues, “but in such a way that it isn’t really shown, or is turned into something insignificant”; it’s constructed instead “in such a way that it takes on a meaning that has nothing at all to do with reality” (1996:19). Thus, at this time employee compensation as a share of the U.S. national income is at its lowest point in more than 50 years (Greenhouse 2013, January 12), but U.S. workers deliver more hours of work each year than their peers in other developed economies (Greenhouse 2001, September 1),[2] and millions of fulltime workers live below the poverty line (U.S. Department of Labor 2012, March). As they are represented in the narratives of Undercover Boss, these conditions are fodder for a mix of emotional personal disclosures by workers with undercover shenanigans, where bosses test their personal ability to carry out the unskilled jobs of their underlings.

Over the last decade, reality TV has grown to occupy a huge presence in the topography of broadcast and cable television in the United States and around the world. Reality-style shows are not new to television, and programs from earlier decades such as This is Your Life, Candid Camera, and The Dating Game would today fall within this broadly defined, hybrid genre of programming. But in recent years there has been a measurable increase in series of this kind, and in the 2003-2004 season

 “reality programs made up 13 percent of the prime-time landscape, up from 4 percent in 1999” (Huff 2006:20).

While the moniker “reality” to describe TV shows of this kind deserves to be received with skepticism, the affinity some reality shows exhibit to other nonfiction forms, such as news reporting and the documentary film, invites us to question the connection between reality TV and other nonfiction media. Indeed, Undercover Boss employs devices similar to those previously employed in labor documentaries. Those documentaries were designed to empower workers by allowing them to testify to their experience, but now reality TV uses these devices to serve an entirely different agenda.

The series’ formula

The idea for a television series where the wealthy or powerful attempt to pass unrecognized among their minions did not originate with Undercover Boss. The series follows, for instance, the earlier series Secret Millionaire, in which millionaires temporarily give up their lavish lifestyles to learn what it’s like to live in an impoverished neighborhood. To participate in this show, each millionaire was required to give away at least $100,000 of their own money. The show’s makers, stressing an altruistic intent behind the enterprise, proposed that the series helped its millionaire stars identify people that could benefit from their charitable contributions (Rocchio 2009, February 2). For participation in Undercover Boss no such lavish give-away is required, although some bosses do make financial or other contributions on behalf of their companies to those workers they identify as worthy. First produced for the U.K.’s Channel 4 in 2009, Undercover Boss today operates as a global franchise with local variants produced in Australia, France, Germany, Norway, and elsewhere. The series’ global franchising exemplifies a current trend in global media production, one where a customizable template-format is combined with a local cast. Within this transnational production system,

“What is exported is not the content itself but a recipe for creating a local version of the internationally successful TV show” (Andrejevic 2004:12).

The show’s episode-by-episode formula is simple. Each week a CEO or similar high-ranking executive officer goes undercover in his/her own company, posing as a new employee who has been assigned to train at a series of locations with other workers or lower-level supervisors. After spending a few days performing a variety of jobs—or discovering they are unable to perform them—and  listening as the workers they meet describe the difficulties they face in their jobs or lives— the boss returns to their boardroom to announce the changes they propose to make in the operation of their company based on what they have heard and seen. Then, in each episode’s final ‘reveal’ sequence, the bosses confront each of the workers or supervisors they encountered during their undercover stint, revealing their true identity and dispensing rewards—money, vacations, college funds, and so on—for those who do their job well while criticizing those who do not.

In the first aired episode of the U.S.-based series, the undercover executive is Lawrence O’Donnell III, president and Chief Operating Officer of the company Waste Management, Inc.. In the opening sequence for the episode, O’Donnell tells his motivation for participating in the show. He sees it as an opportunity to improve the competitiveness of his company. In a voice-over narration backed by dramatic music, he states, 

“If I can pull this off I may be able to revolutionize some of our processes, make us more efficient, which can mean saving jobs. That’s what I’m looking for” (“Waste Management.” Undercover Boss. CBS.February 7. 2010).

Posing as Randy Lawrence, a construction worker who is being followed by a television crew for a small show about trying out entry-level work at Waste Management, O’Donnell then takes on five assignments at company facilities around the country over seven days undercover.

For his first assignment O’Donnell works separating recyclable waste on a rapidly moving garbage conveyor belt in a plant in Syracuse, New York. Like Charlie Chaplin’s character in Modern Times (Charlie Chaplin, 1936), O’Donnell is unable to keep up with the arduous, fast-paced task he has been assigned on the conveyor, and by the end of the day he reports that he’s in physical pain from the labor he performed. For his second assignment he engages in what seems an absurd job, chasing stray papers and other windblown garbage on a Florida landfill. Here, he discovers that his boss for the day, a middle-aged African American man, is on kidney dialysis. For his third assignment, he works with Jaclyn, whose daily responsibilities seem to equal two or three fulltime jobs, and who lives with a litany of serious health problems and faces foreclosure on her home. After a day witnessing Jaclyn’s life circumstances, O’Donnell dramatically announces, testifying directly into the camera in staged auto-portrait footage,

“I’m thinking about Jaclyn. I’m going to another location. I can’t leave, unless I can get the ball rolling on this problem. So, at the risk of blowing my cover, I’m going to contact Jeff [her supervisor]” (“Waste Management.” Undercover Boss. CBS.February 7. 2010).

The sequence is followed by a dramatic, covert meeting between O’Donnell and Jeff in a car in a parking lot, where O’Donnell intervenes on Jaclyn’s behalf. Concluding this sequence, a narrator announces,

“Satisfied he has dealt with the Jaclyn situation, Larry leaves for his next destination and his next undercover job” (“Waste Management.” Undercover Boss. CBS.February 7. 2010).

For his fourth day undercover, O’Donnell works cleaning portable toilets at a Texas fairground. And for his final undercover assignment, O’Donnell does the rounds on a trash collection truck with a female worker, who reveals that she must urinate in a can stowed under her truck while on the job because she cannot deviate from her collection route to visit a proper restroom facility. As dictated by the series’ formula, the episode concludes with O’Donnell convening a meeting of his management team at Waste Management’s headquarters to discuss what he has witnessed while undercover. In the show’s reveal, he discloses his real identity to each of the workers he encountered while undercover.

At each of the locations visited in the episode, serious concerns regarding workers' pay, access to health care, and health and safety in the workplace are depicted onscreen. With these problems in plain view, we might think that the series seeks to expose the frequent hardships faced by U.S. workers as a whole, or at least by the thousands of workers employed by the waste company depicted in this episode of the series. But this is not the case. Instead, in this and subsequent episodes of the series, the particulars of each worker’s case are isolated. The viewer is encouraged to see each as a case of individual hardship, not as illustrative of far reaching problems within the companies depicted or in U.S. workplaces in general. Then, in the reveal section of the show, these individual cases seem resolved by the boss’ benevolent action as she or he dispenses rewards or praise on the tiny cadre of deserving individuals encountered while undercover. For attentive viewers there are clues suggesting larger truths lie behind what we see, but the narrative hides these clues because it directs our attention elsewhere. During the reveal section of the Waste Management episode, for instance, O’Donnell announces in passing that he has decided to put Jaclyn on a salary and “take her off hourly” (“Waste Management.” Undercover Boss. CBS.February 7. 2010), thereby indicating that up to this point she has been working, as is the case for many U.S. workers, on an hourly, non-salary basis as one of the company’s cost-cutting tactics.

The paternalism inherent to the reveal sequence at the end of each episode was not lost on some TV critics. Alessandra Stanley, senior television critic for The New York Times, notes that although “[t]he reaction of these wronged workers is genuinely moving — they are as elated by the recognition as they are by the rewards,” there “is also something embarrassingly feudal about the denouement, like a king dispensing small favors on his way back to the throne.” (2010, February 5). Viewers are not asked to consider the dozens, hundreds, or perhaps thousands of other people working for the same company and facing the same challenges as the individuals seen in the show. As Striffler correctly identifies,

“True to Undercover Boss’s populist inclinations, the resulting ‘reforms’ don’t seem to be implemented companywide but simply impact the workers whom the boss has personally met. It’s charity, not change” (2010:84).

As a television show, Undercover Boss delivers a range of viewing pleasures by using many narrative and visual strategies also found in other reality TV series, confessional daytime talk shows, docusoaps, and news and documentary programming. In a manner similar to the experience of watching makeover shows such as The Biggest Loser, Undercover Boss’s viewers watch as the episodes’ bosses have their appearance, behavior, and social status transformed as they try to present themselves to their employees as one of their own. Then, echoing shows such as Wife Swap, the viewer watches to see how the boss will adapt to this new role and if s/he can pass in it. In the job assignments the bosses must perform during their undercover work, there are echoes of reality shows that test the limits of a contestant’s stamina and fortitude, such as the series Dirty Jobs or Fear Factor. Then, during the undercover assignments, audiences listen to workers’ confessions as they describe the challenges they face in their jobs, or hear the bosses’ reactions to what they have heard from their employees. These aspects of the series exhibit features in common with daytime talk television, where opportunities exist for viewers voyeuristically to identify with or perhaps to look down upon those who reveal their lives onscreen. Finally, in the reveal section of the show, viewers watch to see what rewards will be bestowed on the individual workers featured in the show, in much the same way that game show viewers watch to see what contestants will win.

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