CBS took a gamble on the new reality show Undercover Boss by giving it a prime spot for its premiere – right after the Super Bowl. That gamble paid off, with 38.6 million viewers, and has translated into a continued strong presence on Sunday nights.
The program, which was a realscreen MIPCOM Pick last October, began its life in the UK on Channel 4, and follows the exploits of a company CEO who goes ‘undercover’ to interact with his company’s employees and experience company life as it exists for those without corner offices. The show’s creator, Studio Lambert CEO Stephen Lambert, talked to realscreen about the differences between the show’s UK and U.S. versions, and about his jam-packed slate.
Were you expecting the ratings and response to the U.S. version of Undercover Boss?
We hoped that it would touch a nerve and it seems to have done so. Obviously we got an extraordinary launch pad after CBS made the decision to premiere the show after the Super Bowl, but that didn’t necessarily guarantee a success. Nevertheless, compared to other shows that aired after the Super Bowl, it did very well; the third highest-rating show after the Super Bowl since people meters were invented in 1987. More crucially, people came and watched it the second time and the third time and American viewers, or a significant number of them, find it to be a show that moves them and engages them and they want to watch it.
Are there many differences between the Channel 4 series and the CBS series?
There are lots of differences but the fundamental idea is the same. There were lots of stylistic and editorial differences to do with pacing, to do with the number of characters featured, with music, and the use of commentary so in all sorts of ways it’s a different program than the British version, just as the American Wife Swap was a different show to the British version [which Lambert created while at RDF].
How do the companies get involved? Does 7-11 approach Studio Lambert, or is it the other way around?
We get in touch with companies through all different means. Sometimes companies approach us because their advertising or promotional people know about the show and they say, ‘We think so-and-so might be interested in doing it.’ Sometimes we make a direct approach to the companies.
How do you respond to criticism that the show is just a giant commercial or PR exercise for the companies involved?
A commercial is where you pay money to present your brand message in exactly the way you want it presented and you pay for advertising time on a network to have that exact and precise message beamed out to viewers. This isn’t that at all. This is a program where the companies that are featured have no editorial control over the editing process and where they have to let us see some of the things that aren’t quite right in the company.
What else are you working on right now?
We are doing a series for Channel 4 and an American version for a U.S. network that we haven’t announced yet called Three In a Bed [which was also a realscreen MIPCOM Pick]. Each week three bed and breakfast owners take turns staying at each others’ establishments and critique them, and they only have to pay as much of the bill as they see appropriate. A B&B is so personal and the criticism of it is taken so personally [and that] lies at the heart of the show.
We are making a big ambitious series for Channel 4 called Notting Hill [where] we are going to be following people that live in that area of West London. It’s a place where there’s a great variety of people living in a concentrated area – some very wealthy people and some people who aren’t very wealthy. We will be filming, editing and broadcasting the program in the same week. It’s kind of like a real-time documentary.
We’re [also] making a new unnamed series for Channel 4 that takes a character from a documentary series we made called Benefit Busters, who will appear in every episode of a more formatted documentary series. We’re doing a big series for ITV called All At Sea where we follow two groups of celebrities as they travel by two different kinds of boats along the south coast of England.
[Lastly,] we just [completed] the editing of a feature documentary about the underlying causes of the financial crisis called A Fundamental Flaw. We have been making it with director David Sington (In the Shadow of the Moon). He’s taken on the challenge of telling the story of the crash in an accessible fashion. That’s currently being put forward to various film festivals.