Inside Undercover Boss

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undercover bossYou might have been a little bummed Sunday night to discover that CBS didn't broadcast a fresh episode of your new favorite reality show, Undercover Boss. If you're like millions of other Americans, you've become addicted to the show that first aired after the Super Bowl, and features corporate CEOs going undercover in their own companies and learning poignant -- often revelatory -- lessons about the people who work for them.


It's common practice for networks to withhold new episodes of hit shows rather than have them compete against special event programming like the Academy Awards on ABC Sunday, but fear not -- you don't have to go without your Undercover Boss fix this week. AOL is taking you behind the scenes with executive producer Eli Holzman, who, despite his lofty position, is probably just as moved by the show as you are.

"Now that I'm working on Undercover Boss, my mom is finally proud of me," jokes Holzman. "She cries through every episode."

OK, so Mrs. Holzman might be just a little bit biased, but Undercover Boss seems to have hit a chord with the rest of America as well. Recently it was the third most-watched show on television, behind the Olympics and American Idol, and is the Number One new show of the 2009-2010 season. The positive response to AOL's piece on Undercover Boss Builds White Castle was unprecedented and overwhelming. Why does this particular show seem to capture all America's heart?


What's so great about the show?

"I think one of the reasons it resonates with everyone is that in this economy, there is such a great disparity between the haves and the have nots," says Holzman. "This show bridges that gap. This puts a face on all those people who work so hard every day, and are often taken for granted." People at all levels relate to it, he adds, because they feel they're finally getting the appreciation and recognition they deserve.

Also, this is not "train wreck TV," Holzman notes. "Not to cast any aspersions on other shows -- I think each show finds its own way and audience." The Undercover Boss audience seems to be made up of viewers who are more interested seeing people being celebrated and lifted up, rather than melting down or self-destructing.

If there has been one criticism about the show, it involves whether it's fair to feature workers on television without paying them extra for it. "No one has ever asked for compensation," says Holzman -- including the bosses themselves, who receive no monetary remuneration whatsoever. He explains that everyone on the show has an option to be filmed or not, while working their regular shifts and taking their regular breaks. "They're not doing anything different than what they normally do. Most are thrilled to participate, and feel special afterward to have been a part of it."


A long line of hits

Holzman raves that this is the best project he's ever been a part of, and that's really saying something. He started his career in show business at Miramax Films, with the notorious Weinstein brothers, and worked on films like Rounders and In Too Deep. He then transferred to the Weinstein's television division in Los Angeles and worked on Project Greenlight and created Project Runway. "TV is a very powerful medium," he says, noting that when Project Runway was involved with the Parsons School of Design, enrollment there doubled.

He left Miramax in 2005 to run Ashton Kutcher's 20th Century Fox-based Katalyst Films where he developed the CW series Beauty & the Geek, then started his own company, Development Hell, where he headed shows like the CW's Stylistas, Bravo's Work of Art, Fox Reality's Ridin' Dirty, ABC Family's Longevity and G4's The Block.

But it wasn't until the fall 2008 that Holzman got involved with the company behind Undercover Boss. He became executive vice president of Studio Lambert USA, the American subsidiary of the British production company that was producing Undercover Boss in the United Kingdom. That's right: Undercover Boss is -- like so many of the most popular reality shows -- a British import.

"The U.S. version is on a much larger scale, though," says Holzman. "The reveal at the end, especially, is much bigger."


CBS knows best

"The Waste Management episode was the pilot," Holzman relates. CBS understood the appeal from the very beginning and signed on. So far there are nine episodes "in the can," (fully completed and ready to air), and four of them, Waste Management, Hooters, 7-Eleven and White Castle, have already run. The episode featuring William C. Carstanjen, the COO of Churchill Downs, airs Sunday, March 14.

And, since the show is so successful, will there be a Season 2? "The chances for that are looking exceptionally good," says Holzman; although, as of this writing, CBS had not committed to anything.

He notes that before any of the episodes aired, it was a little difficult to talk companies into participating. They had no idea of the final, edited outcome, and didn't want to look foolish on national TV. "Now we get calls every day from companies who want to participate," he says.

But now that the bosses' cover is blown, will a Season 2 work? Won't employees be suspicious when some new person walks in, accompanied by a huge camera crew? "We have some clever ways to work around that," says Holzman. But if he revealed them, they wouldn't work, would they? You'll just have to stay tuned to Undercover Boss to find out for yourself.

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