'Undercover Boss': TV Program or Infomercial?

undercover boss NASCAR Steve Phelps
undercover boss NASCAR Steve Phelps

Let's call last night's Undercover Boss exactly what it was: a commercial for NASCAR.

The producers of the hit CBS Inc. (CBS) reality show must have either run out of ideas or think that viewers are too stupid to care. Either way, the program has once again veered into corporate never-never land where out-of-touch CEOs learn that working at a low-level job can be difficult. Who knew, right? The lesson for workers is that top executives are really nice people who grant wishes to a deserving few.

People who believe that Undercover Boss is an accurate depiction of modern working life must also think that a jolly fat man living at the North Pole manages to deliver toys to boys and girls who pass a subjective test of whose been naughty or nice. The show, whose latest star was NASCAR Chief Marketing Officer Steve Phelps, has gotten that bad.

Actual CEO Unavailable?

First, why was Phelps even picked? The whole point of the show was to open the eyes of the CEO, or if he or she isn't available or interested, of another top manager. In NASCAR's case, though, that may have been impossible. NASCAR CEO Brian Z. France is the grandson of the founder William H.G. "Big Bill" France. His seceded his father William as CEO in 2003. Perhaps no amount of TV make up could hide France's identity.

But the chief marketing officer? Phelps, who joined NASCAR in 2005 after a stint with the National Football League, shouldn't need a TV show to tell him about what ails NASCAR. TV ratings are down, sponsorship revenue has dried up and ticket sales have declined. Many people point to the economy as the culprit but that doesn't tell the whole story. Four-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson is getting blamed by some fans for the sport's woes for "winning all the time," according to the Associated Press. Johnson, for his part, denies he is "vanilla,", the AP says.

Given the sport's problems, it's hard to see how Phelps could get a better handle on them through his Undercover Boss assignments, in which he played the role of superfan Kevin Thomas. One involved him training with a pit crew under the watchful eye of Dion, a crew chief getting ready for the Daytona 500. It didn't take long for the executive to get winded by the workout in the blazing heat and flummoxed by the mechanical ballet required to be a member of the pit crew. One member of the team said that the only job Kevin would be qualified for was waterboy. (There is a variation of that joke in every episode.) Dion also fretted about whether he would have a job once he could no longer physically work on the pit crew.

The obligatory sad story came from Glen, Daytona's head sign artist, who has a son with leukemia. Tire specialist Scott, who was Phelps' boss on race day, was peeved at NASCAR for making it too difficult for crews to be able to get race tickets for their families. Then there was Cindy and her brother Tom, volunteers who ran a concession stand to raise money for a local school because "for some reason our school district doesn't consider cheer-leading a sport."

The Executive Dream Team Arrives

When Phelps transformed himself from dorky fan to suave executive, the unsuspecting workers were shocked, of course. Dion was appointed to an industrial council so that he could share his views with the company. Scott was assured of a job from NASCAR whenever he wanted to quit the crew. Not surprisingly, Phelps offered to fly out his family to a race of his choice, all expenses paid. His fellow crew members also got race tickets. Cindy and Tom walked away with a promise to double the take they got for their school. Tom, a race fan, got tickets to the championship race.

The show reached its climax, though, when Phelps gave Glen an autographed helmet signed by the race's drivers. Then, he matter-of-factly announced that the family's medical expenses would be picked up as well. Glen was obviously overjoyed by the lifting of a huge financial burden.

During the episode, Phelps spoke of the need for NASCAR to connect with its fans. But in this episode, it seems the company missed a golden opportunity to do just that.