copyright 2013, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 55, fall 2013

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 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.

Undercover Boss first aired in the United States on February 7, 2010, directly following the Super Bowl XLIV post-game round up. Retaining viewers drawn to the programming that proceeded it, CBS reported the first episode of the series was watched by 38.6-million viewers, the largest audience ever for a new show airing after the Super Bowl and the most watched premiere for a reality TV show (Seidman 2010, February 8). Early promotion of the series publicized that the show had something to say about the state of the economy. In this vein, episodes from the first season of the series begin with a voiceover narration stating,

“The economy is going through tough times. Many hard working Americans blame wealthy CEOs, out of touch with what’s going on in their own companies. But some bosses are willing to take extreme action to make their businesses better. Each week we follow the boss of a major corporation as they go undercover in their own company” (“Waste Management.” Undercover Boss. CBS.February 7. 2010).

Some critics commented on the series’ link to the recession. In The New York Times, Stanley observed that the series seemed to respond to the state of the economy. She proposed that the show is “tailor-made for the anticorporate rancor of the times” (2010, February 5), and

“a psychological byproduct of the recession. A bull economy produced business competitions like The Apprentice, during which alpha executives competed for the corner office; bad times require a boss to walk a mile in his employees’ work boots” (2010, February 5).

But she adds,

“Unfortunately, the top brass of Wall Street didn’t volunteer for the riches-to-rags experiment, so the premiere episode on Sunday, right after the Super Bowl, focuses on Lawrence O’Donnell III, the president and chief operating officer of Waste Management” (2010, February 5).

In the book Undercover Boss: Inside the TV Phenomenon That is Changing Bosses and Employees Everywhere, published to accompany the series and authored by series’ producers Stephen Lambert and Eli Holzman, the program’s makers make it clear that despite the allusions to contemporary social themes in the series’ marketing, their overriding goal was something else. They write, describing the production of the first series,

“As the episodes emerged from the edit suit, everything we hoped for the series seemed to be coming true. The show delivered comedy and emotion” (Lambert & Holzman 2011:14).

In its fourth season in Spring 2013, Undercover Boss continued to deliver strong ratings for CBS with roughly 10-million viewers reported on February 1, placing it side-by-side with another reality TV show, Shark Tank, as the top rated Friday evening television show(Kondolojy 2013, February 2).

Participatory culture?

Some media commentators have proposed that one attraction of reality TV is that seems to be a forum where ordinary members of the public can appear in the mass media, thereby gaining some measure of celebrity or perhaps even having an opportunity to represent their concerns or interests. In The Peep Diaries: How We’re Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors, Hal Niedzviecki proposes,

“Today, more than ever, we want to be the stars, and we’re told that, yes, we can and should and probably will be stars. After all, anybody can be a celebrity in the age of reality TV, blogging, and social networks, can’t they?” (2009:49).

Media scholar Mark Andrejevic argues that some commentators have championed reality TV as a feature of an emerging participatory culture since it seems to offer the possibility “that access to the means of media production will be thrown open to the public at large” (2004:2) and everyone can have their own television show. Or, if you can’t produce your own show, you will at least have

“a distant chance of becoming a star on one of the dozens of reality formats that have seemingly taken over the airwaves” (Andrejevic 2004:2).

For the workers featured on Undercover Boss, appearing in the series may bring a measure of personal celebrity. For example, in a newspaper article “Columbia Moe’s worker featured on ‘Undercover Boss’,” the Charlotte Observer reports that that evening a local woman, Janet Moak, a catering director for Moe’s Southwestern Grill restaurants, will appear on an episode of the series (Eppley Rupon, 2013, January 18). Prominently featured in the article is an image of Moak standing behind the register of one of Moe’s restaurants with a beaming smile on her face. Moak is cited as saying that to recruit her to the series, producers contacted her to see if she would be willing to appear in a pilot reality TV show. She was given few details of what was involved and did not know that the producers who contacted her were from Undercover Boss until she found herself in the show’s final reveal (Eppley Rupon, 2013, January 18). The article reports,

“[Moak] said she doesn’t regret anything she said to her undercover boss as he worked by her side. ‘Absolutely not because everything I did was 100 percent me,’ said Moak, who has held her position with the restaurant chain for two years. ‘I do love my job, and I fully believe in what I do’” (Eppley Rupon, 2013, January 18).

Moak will watch the broadcast at a private viewing party, the news report adds, trading on her minor celebrity and excitement at being featured in the series. It also reports that to celebrate the episode’s connection to the local woman, some Midlands-area Moe’s will offer “buy one, get one free” burritos after 6 p.m. (Eppley Rupon 2013, January 18).

For some of the individuals seen in Undercover Boss, an appearance in the series may deliver minor celebrity status and perhaps a payoff at the end of a show, but the real beneficiaries of the series are the bosses and the companies they represent. Stanley accurately observes, responding to the episode “1-800-Flowers” (Undercover Boss. CBS.April 11. 2010),

“Undercover Boss is less an exposé than a showcase, and the chosen companies view it as an opportunity, not a reckoning. Chris McCann, president of 1-800-Flowers.com, who is the star of the season finale, uses it as a marketing tool, sending customers a ‘special offer’ e-mail message. ‘See our president on Undercover Boss — and shop his personal picks!” (2010, February 10).[3]

Describing searches to find boss-candidates for the series, Lambert and Holzman reveal how the companies and executives featured in the series view it. They report that it was a challenge to find executive officers with the time to participate in the series, or companies willing to sign a participation agreement in which the company “would have no editorial control and would not be permitted to see its episode until it aired” (Lambert & Holzman 2011:8). But Lambert and Holzman record that for the series’ premiere, the Waste Management episode, they had a champion. A public relations officer at the waste company recognized that

“what we were offering was madly risky, but she also thought it might just be the PR coup of her career if it all went well” (2011:9).

This PR officer prevailed, encouraging company Chief Operating Officer O’Donnell to talk with the series’ producers, thereby leading to his appearance in the first episode of the series and garnering a favorable image of Waste Management, Inc. for the millions of television viewers watching the episode.

The bosses who appear in the show may also benefit personally and professionally. National and local mainstream news coverage of the series may position the companies featured onscreen to cash in through the advertising of their products or services and the enhancement of their public relations image. Furthermore, reports on the individual episodes appear in publications with a specialized readership, such as business and trade magazines. These articles suggest that bosses may also accrue prestige within their professional peer networks by appearing on the show. For instance, in April 2011, The Chronicle of Higher Education—read by university faculty and administrators—published an article in its faculty news section titled “A Chancellor Strolls His Campus in Disguise on CBS’s ‘Undercover Boss’”, describing the undercover exploits of Timothy P. White, the chancellor of University of California Riverside, when he was filmed for the show (Keller 2011, April 24).

The unequal experience of the workers and bosses who appear in the series is nowhere more evident than in cases where workers are fired during a show. In a news report published when the series was first commissioned by CBS, a reporter describing the U.K. version of the series writes,

“Once the undercover stint ends, the executive… makes changes to fix the problems. Some of those changes involve rewarding employees who deserve recognition, but others receive less happy news;” the “poor performers will have nowhere to hide” (Rocchio 2009, February 2).

This was the fate that befell one Boston Market supervisor in Duluth, Georgia, who, when he appeared on the U.S. version of the series, told the company’s undercover Chief Brand Officer Sara Bittorf,

“I literally hate customers more than anything in the entire world. I hate them so much” (Adams 2013, February 5).

Bittorf immediately revealed her identity and confronted the worker. He was fired. In another incident, this time during an episode featuring the CEO of a clothing company, a worker offered the undercover boss marijuana. In this case the worker was offered retraining and a meeting with the company’s human resources department to develop “proper workplace etiquette” (Connelly 2013, February 26). As these instances illustrate, in a peculiar twist on citizen journalism as a watchdog of corporate or government malfeasance, within the formula of Undercover Boss the undercover bosses present themselves to viewers as though they are citizen reporters investigating the inner life of their own companies—unearthing truths worthy of a viewer’s attention, such as the misconduct of low-level employees.

Another scenario repeated in Undercover Boss, one that also delivers dramatic moments for the series while allowing the bosses to present themselves to viewers as arbiters of workplace justice, occurs when bosses blame low-level managers for the negative experiences of the workers who serve under them. For instance, in an episode from the series’ first season featuring the Hooters restaurant chain (“Hooters.” Undercover Boss. CBS.February 14. 2010), the undercover CEO witnesses a restaurant manager bullying the waitresses in his charge. At the end of the episode the manager is called to task for his behavior, and he’s pressed to apologize to his staff and change his behavior. This scenario serves as the dramatic climax of the episode, hammering home the message that Hooters, a business operation criticized for the sexual objectification of women, cares about the wellbeing of its female employees. In scenarios such as this one,

“worker exploitation is presented as ultimately the product of a rogue manager, not corporations seeking to maximize profit” (Striffler 2010:84).

“It is typically some poor sap in middle management who has simply been following orders to meet goals that the boss set before going undercover” who carries the blame for the workforce’s travails (Striffler 2010:84).

For individuals such as the worker fired for admitting to hating customers, the work of being watched on television brings no rewards. For the series’ makers, dramatic events such as firings or the disciplining of “rogue” middle managers contribute to the show’s dramatic content, thereby drawing viewers and adding to ratings and profits. Where the series superficially appears to offer workers an opportunity to represent themselves and speak about their experiences, the series favors the bosses’ point of view on every important matter. An anonymous author writing for Bloomberg Businessweek Magazine argues,

“Forget about bagging poultry parts or pumping and dumping penny stocks. The dirtiest job in America right now is producing reality TV” (2010, February 4).

The same writer continues, while Undercover Boss purports to champion the “little guys by letting them have at the big guys,” in fact, power rests with the bosses:

“The secret executives know they're on a TV show, while the workers think the cameras are there for other reasons. … Because the series' very existence requires cooperation from the executives that it purports to make suffer for their sins, it has to raise them higher, in the end, than it found them at the start. If it doesn't, they'll stop volunteering for their fake lashings and ritual redemptions (Bloomberg Businessweek Magazine 2010, February 4).

Series’ producers Lambert and Holzman make no secret of how they envision the bosses’ role in the series or who they think viewers should see as its hero. They write that in late 2008 the recession had hit:

“There was widespread disillusionment with the leaders of corporate America, but here we were proposing a TV show that would put [bosses] center stage as heroes on a mission to learn, improve their business, and thank their employees” (2011:4).

Testimony or confession?

In each episode of Undercover Boss, the spoken word is used cinematically in a number of different ways. First, oral interactions take place during the undercover section of the show, especially between the workers and an undercover boss posing as a worker. These interactions include sharing intimate details of a worker’s or a boss’s life, with the most intimate interactions often taking place during employee work breaks or when the boss and one worker stand isolated from others. From a viewer’s point of view, these exchanges always occur with the viewer’s knowledge that the second worker in the exchange is not a worker at all, but a boss. In an interesting way, these exchanges, with workers revealing information about their health or the health of family members, financial difficulties, failure to meet life goals, and so on, distinguishes Undercover Boss from an otherwise similar reality TV series Dirty Jobs, aired on the Discovery Channel. As with Undercover Boss, Dirty Jobs presents viewers with a glimpse inside many contemporary workplaces. But in this series, the playful onscreen banter of host Mike Rowe ensures even the most undesirable workplace is seen by viewers as a dramatic, extreme, or humorous spectacle, rather than as a site for melodramatic, personal disclosure of the kind seen in Undercover Boss.

Second, in staged interviews intercut at points within each episode, the undercover bosses speak directly to the camera to describe what they have discovered so far, or how they feel about the experience of being undercover. Third, the workers, post-reveal, speak directly to camera, telling how they feel about the show’s outcome or about their surprise at appearing in it. And fourth, there are moments of voice-of-god narration, usually at the beginning of a show, where aspects of the episode are introduced.

In Freakshow: First Person Media and Factual Television (2000), Jon Dovey delivers a framework for examining the verbal communication and speech acts presented in the series. Dovey proposes that there are a number of categories of speech that are common to reality TV programs, including testimony, confession, and subcategories of confession, such as self-disclosure as an rehabilitative act of “reclaiming and rebuilding selfhood” akin to the experience of the psychoanalytic couch (Dovey 2000:111). For our purposes, understanding the difference between testimony and confession is key to investigating the workers’ speech in Undercover Boss and understanding how the meaning of this speech is framed for the series’ viewers. Dovey argues,

“To witness and to testify are acts which have a history first of all within legal process as a way of establishing truth through first person corroboration, either as eye-witness, victim, perpetrator or expert” (2000:112).

The political acts of witnessing or testifying have a long history linked to religious and political dissent. Testifying has served as

“a way of asserting your individual rights in the face of the dominant power of the established church as well as asserting group identity as part of a politically oppositional practice” (2000:113).

The testimony of individuals who seek to assert their rights has been a key feature of documentary filmmaking since the introduction of portable, synchronized sound recording equipment in the 1960s, with examples of this practice present in much earlier documentaries. Classic labor-themed committed documentaries such as Julia Reichert, James Klein, and Miles Mogulescu’s Union Maids (1976) and Judith Helfand, Susanne Rostock, and George C. Stoney’s The Uprising of ’34 (1995), as well as more recent productions such as Almudena Carracedo’s Made in L.A. (2007) or Amie Williams’ We Are Wisconsin (2012), foreground the oral testimony of workers who express their dissent and press for social change. The above-mentioned documentary films were conceived in a manner intended to empower those who testify, positioning them as active agents in the writing of their own history. For example, the testimony delivered by the three women featured in Union Maids describes the role women played as labor organizers in Chicago in the 1930s and establishes that these women have the right to testify on their own behalf, to author their own stories, and to have their interpretation of their lives recorded as history. Films that use testimony in this way seek to uphold the right of marginalized constituencies to speak, be heard, and be recorded. Underlying this media-making approach is a commitment to constructing social realities through participatory processes, so that all people, irrespective of social status, race, gender, ability, or other discrimination, are active participants in the construction of social truths and have full entrance to a democratic, civil society.

In contrast, Undercover Boss delivers to its viewers a qualitatively different kind of workers' speech. In the series, the speech presented is not the testimony of individuals demanding a voice in civil society. Instead, it is composed of a series of confessions that are presented to viewers as each illustrative of one individual worker’s experience. Dovey states, there is a longstanding perception that the documentary and other established fact-based television genres “are constitutive of the civic society,” where they have served as a “central feature of the (pre-Internet) ‘electronic public sphere’” (2000:14). But, he argues, in recent years reality based shows have brought to the fore “the individual subjective experience as guarantor of knowledge” (Dovey 2000:21). In contrast to the presentation of testimony in fact-based programming where it serves as evidentiary support for an argument, in reality TV the relation between the individual and larger social conditions is banished from sight. Within these new television formats, Dovey argues,

“the individual experience occupies the foreground and any ‘argument’ is often impossible to discern” (2000:21).

From this has emerged a “theater of intimacy” (Dovey 2000:25) where individual truths are ascendant and personal tragedies, traumas, and the drama of individual lives have replaced the presentation of more general truth claims or an examination of wider social or structural realities or discriminations. Corroborating this argument, in their work on reality TV Sam Brenton and Reuben Cohen suggest that this genre of television programming commonly foregrounds features of self-help and pop psychology, in the process curtailing the exploration of larger social narratives.  Within this confession-centered environment, they argue, the first person is raised to the status of sole truth, and

“notions of community, polity and public space are distant background to the revels of a subjectivity that is its own reward and kingdom” (Brenton & Cohen 2003:31).

Within the rubric of reality TV, the term “participatory”—which in the past served to indicate the democratization of political processes so that marginalized sections of society could represent themselves politically and culturally—is used to describe programming that often involves nothing more than “ordinary people parading the dreary details of their difficult lives” (Dovey 2000:104).

Illustrating this evolution, in Undercover Boss the viewer hears a series of confessions by workers about their lives, challenges, personal failings, unhappiness, and so on, all delivered in the passive speech of the confessional and bereft of any demand for the general reform of these conditions. Drawing on Foucault’s theory of the operation of confession in the disciplining of sexuality, Dovey argues that the confession is implicitly a submissive act where the speaker appeals to a “naming” authority (2000:105). Within this equation, an individual engaged in confession waits for a higher power or institutional entity, one outside of her or himself, to determine whether an intervention or change of some kind is appropriate—and, if so, what kind of intervention or change will be instituted. In Undercover Boss, the higher power is the boss, who rewards worthy workers on an individual case-by-case basis during each show’s reveal. By ensuring that the viewer experiences the speech they hear as a series of confessions by workers rather than workers’ testimony, the series manages to show life on the underside of the American dream without making any appeal for the emergence or mobilization of a political consciousness.

Thus, the confessions delivered by workers in the show are rooted in a television self-help culture and not practices of advocacy or labor organizing. The bosses featured in the show are presented as empathetic listeners—as de facto personal counselors to their workers. They are the ones who, once the hardship faced by individual workers has been revealed to them, dole out prescriptive solutions in the form of advice or charitable gifts and promotions, all the while restoring the health and wellbeing of their company through the surveillance of the psychological state of their employees.

Is there a performance of class solidarity in the series?

There is a twist that underlies the confession-centered narratives that the series presents to viewers, one that is hidden from the audience’s view by each episode’s formal construction.The speech delivered to viewers is confessional in nature as described above, since from the outset of each episode the viewer is always privy to the knowledge that the workers seen onscreen are talking with an undercover boss, and not with another regular worker. But the workers we see onscreen did not know they were speaking with a boss when they were videotaped; they believed they were talking with a new co-worker. Here we must ask if the openness we see between the workers and the disguised-boss-as-fellow-worker suggests an expression of class solidarity as workers share mutually useful information about their workplace and the challenges they face there, while also expressing empathy and looking out for each other?

For instance, in the episode “Fatburger” (Undercover Boss, CBS, April 5, 2013) undercover CEO Andy Wiederhorn is depicted talking in a parking lot at the rear of a restaurant with assistant manager Angelica, who tells him how a fast food franchise should be run and how it should treat its workers, including making sure that the staff are paid on time. In this instance, for viewers privileged with the knowledge that Angelica is telling the boss of the fast food chain that employs her how to run a fast food business, her comments appear somewhat humorous and ironic. However, the impulse behind this worker's information-sharing, as with other workers who behave in a similar fashion throughout the various episodes of the series, may actually be illustrative of an embryonic form of class solidarity as she seeks to align her new colleague’s understanding of conditions at a shared workplace with her own dissenting view. From a viewer’s perspective these interactions are likely not recognized as acts of solidarity, since the viewer knows that one of the workers onscreen is not a worker at all. The excising of this potential hint of class solidarity from the audience’s viewing experience is made complete in the reveal sequence at the end of each show, when the individual worker is plucked from their daily surroundings and peers and brought to their employer’s head office for the episode’s reveal. Here it is made clear to viewers that each worker’s involvement in the series will bring rewards only for them as individuals, and these rewards are divorced from any collective experience of advocacy or a movement towards labor solidarity.

Finally, when discussing the confessions delivered by the workers over the course of each episode, it cannot go unnoticed that each worker’s confessional performance has been capitalized upon during its conversion into television content. The confessions delivered by the workers are the bread and butter of each episode’s narrative trajectory, and therefore key to the series’ commercial success and the profits it generates for its producers and the broadcasters who air it.[4] Andrejevic argues,

“The reality TV trend offers one way of thinking through broad-reaching societal developments that are reorganizing the division between labor and leisure, consumption and production, shopping and watching TV.” … [These shows]  anticipate a world in which we will create value for advertisers and marketers by allowing ourselves to be watched as we go about our daily routines, in which the promise of interactive participation serves as a ruse of the rationalization of consumption” (Andrejevic 2004:8).

In Undercover Boss, the workers we see onscreen perform two kinds of labor. First, they fulfill their everyday jobs as they are depicted by the television series. Second, they engage in the unpaid labor of appearing in a reality TV series. In the latter role the workers engage in what Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri term “immaterial labor”—work that results in the production of no material or durable good, instead generating “an immaterial good, such as a service, a cultural product, knowledge, or communication” (2000:290). The workers seen in Undercover Boss do this for no pay—beyond the minimal personal benefits they might gain should their employer choose to grant any— but their onscreen performance is harnessed for the profit and benefit of the series’ makers and broadcasters.


As with all forms of media production, the effect that Undercover Boss has on its viewers is varied. Stressing the influence of television in general on the construction of social reality, scholar John Hartley argues that television both shows and shapes contemporary life, playing

“a prominent role in producing and distributing what counts as true for many… from legitimizing actions in war, business, and the ‘administration of life’ to steering conduct at the personal level” (2008:1).

In a similar vein, writing specifically about reality TV, Susan Murray and Laurie Ouellette argue,

“the current wave of reality TV circulates ideologies, myths, and templates for living that might be called educational in nature” (2004:3).

These authors are not proposing that television viewers are passive sponges in the face of the television programs they are exposed to. Murray and Ouellette argue that viewers of reality TV may recognize that these shows deliberately highlight “dramatic uncertainty, voyeurism, and popular pleasure,” and viewers therefore are not likely to confuse reality TV with news broadcasts, documentaries, and other public service style program formats (2004:2-3). Thus we must take seriously the possibility that the viewers of reality TV possess, to use Hartley’s term, an “informal expertise” regarding the genres’ messaging, thereby inoculating them against becoming haplessly propagandized by program makers (2008:2). When studying a media product such as Undercover Boss, we must be open to the possibility that close studies of audience responses to the series may generate varied and unpredictable findings, including ones not explored here.

Conversely, we cannot ignore that television remains the most prominent single entertainment medium in U.S. society. It plays a role in transmitting the ideological frames by which we orient our lives. For this reason, we must be concerned that Undercover Boss offers such a partisan view of labor in contemporary United States. Under the guise that it has something to reveal to us about the experience of U.S. workers, the series instead naturalizes as “reality” that the wellbeing of workers happens solely at the behest of their employers. The portrait of the working world presented by the series is one that is bereft of organized labor, government safety or labor regulation, or the presence of meaningful solidarity among those who labor together under conditions that too often leave them underpaid, working longer hours than at any time in recent decades, under-insured, and insecure about their future. We should be concerned too that while the series draws on serious issues related to the experiences of U.S. labor, it deflects attention from these issues by highlighting only the drama of seeing if a boss can pass as a worker; personally revealing confessions of hardship on the part by workers; and happy endings where redemption is delivered to individual workers in a narrative wrapping-up “reveal.”

In his classic study, Television: Technology and Cultural Form, Raymond Williams argues that television has massively increased the public’s exposure to drama (1974). He argues,

“it seems probable that in societies like Britain and the United States more drama is watched in a week or weekend, by the majority of viewers, than would have been watched in a year or in some cases a lifetime in any previous historical period” (1974:59).

In Undercover Boss, the focus on drama and a stream of individual characters, whether bosses or workers, hides an exploration of the larger social processes that underlie what we see onscreen. Indeed, with reality TV increasingly prominent within the topography of nonfiction media, we may find its principle attractions— charismatic characters, personal stories, and dramatic narratives possessing clear-cut dramatic closure—increasingly expected from other nonfiction genres such as television news and the documentary film. At the end of the day, the entertainment-driven reality-based fiction delivered by Undercover Boss is a neoliberal fantasy where viewers root for or identify with or look down on the individuals seen onscreen—honest hardworking individual workers, unfair or corrupt middle-managers, and benevolent, concerned bosses—while never being drawn into an examination of the real economic and social issues that are at the heart of the show. In perfect synergy with neoliberal anti-labor ideology, the peace between workers and bosses that each episode delivers in its conclusion is a capitulation of the belief that labor has rights, including a right to press for an improvement of the terms and conditions by which workers are employed. For the stream of hardworking U.S. workers presented by the show, isolated instances of charity come in place of a movement towards economic justice.


1. Reality TV’s modern game shows include Weakest Link and So You Want to be a Millionaire? Test of endurance shows include Fear Factor.Examples of court shows are The People’s Court, Judge Joe Brown. Gamedoc competitions include Survivor, Dancing with the Stars, and The Biggest Loser. [return to text]

2. Greenhouse reports,

“Americans work 137 hours, or about three and one-half weeks, more a year than Japanese workers, 260 hours (about six and one-half weeks) more a year than British workers and 499 hours (about 12 1/2 weeks) more a year than German workers… The Japanese had long been at the top for the number of hours worked, but in the mid-1990's the United States surpassed Japan, and since then it has pulled farther ahead” (2001, September 1).

3. Stanley adds,

“These self-serving gambits annoy labor groups, including American Rights at Work, a nonprofit labor policy organization in Washington, which circulates labor complaints and employee lawsuits against the companies that CBS has crowned. (1-800-Flowers.com, for example, is currently fighting a sexual harassment suit by a former deputy general counsel and vice president.) The group also takes exception to the way each episode ends with a pageant of seigniorial largesse — a $1,000 gift certificate, a family vacation — instead of a commitment to fair wages and safe working conditions.” (2010, February 10).

4. Reality TV programming can be inexpensive to make when compared to television shows that rely professional writers for scripts and the involvement of unionized actors or celebrities and others who are able to negotiate for high wages. For instance, for the hugely popular show, The Real World, cast members were paid a pittance and each episode cost only $107,000 to produce (Huff 2006:13). In the late 1990s and early 2000s,

“Finding reality formats cheap to produce, easy to sell abroad, and not dependant on the hiring of unionized acting and writing talent, the industry began to develop more programs” (Ouellette & Murray 2004:7).


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