Undercover Boss producer Eli Holzman is excited about his latest show. Not because he's created one of the more thought-provoking entrants in the reality genre or because it's doing well in the ratings (a 5.2 rating in adults and 14 million viewers in the second half-hour of last Sunday's broadcast against the Winter Olympics). No, Holzman is just happy that the show is working.
"Social experiments," as reality producers are fond of calling their show premises nowadays, don't always go as planned. But so far so good for Undercover Boss, which puts company CEOs in disguise and sets them to task among their own employees. We talked to Holzman, a reality vet via Project Runway and Beauty and the Geek, about whether or not the show is real, fast-food drive-thru windows, and what he would make his boss do on the show.
TV.com: What do you say to the skeptics who say Undercover Boss isn't real?
Eli Holzman: It's a difficult thing. The "bosses" and people who have participated have been interviewed extensively and they attest to the veracity of our process. For the skeptics out there, on some level, if you want to find fault, you're always find fault. But the truth is, this is a real process and people have a real experience that we're documenting. Last March, we didn't even know if this would work. It was a theory, we did some shooting in the UK, and we had some sense that it might work. For me, it's been born out firsthand as I watch people go through it, as I watch bosses brag to me early on that this is going to be a piece of cake and then I watch them two days in and they're exhausted or moved to tears or have become irate over seeing something they don't like and they're going to double their efforts to fix it.
How do you keep the show from being an hour-long infomercial for the company that's being filmed?
I don't think Hooters would say [their episode] was a commercial [laughs]. There are a few things, one is journalistic integrity. We go out and find our own stories, we don't consult with the companies with what those will be and what areas of the company we're going to look into. For example, if we're going to film at a White Castle, our producers will go to several White Castles and decide where we're going to go and why. The bosses have no input in that, so they might be walking into someone who isn't happy with something, and that wouldn't be their first choice, infomercial-wise. We tell nervous bosses "You might encounter things that you aren't comfortable with, but you will be right there and you can do whatever you want to deal with it and address it." We don't screen the episode for the company to give them an opportunity to give notes. We want to deliver an authentic picture of what it's like to work at this place. What would it be like to work at a White Castle? What are the best parts, what are the worst parts?
What's in store for this Sunday's episode?
We're going inside White Castle this week, which is a family-owned business. They're in their fourth generation of the family that is running things today, and it's a member of that fourth generation who is going undercover. One of my favorite moments—we've all been on the other side of the drive-thru speaker, and they ask you to repeat yourself or they're constantly repeating your order. How hard can this possibly be? I just want a burger and fries. You'll see a very smart captain of the industry struggle mightily in the drive-thru window [laughs].
Have you had any close calls where a boss' cover is blown?
Not really, but I expect it will happen. We've been pretty lucky so far. No one who the boss has been working with [has figured out the boss's identity], and that's been pretty surprising. In the first episode, [Waste Management CEO] Larry O'Donnell works at the Houston Rodeo and Stock show vacuuming out portable toilets. The manager who assigns him to the man he is going to be working with, Larry says, "That's Gilbert Cortez, there's no way he doesn't recognize me." I say, "No problem, let's just try." All day long Gilbert checks up on him, never once did he notice. At the very end of the day, Gilbert turns to me and says, "Hey wait a minute, that's Larry O'Donnell." I think just being out of a suit and being out of context [really hides his identity]. That was a real boost of confidence for us.
We share a boss, Les Moonves of CBS. How would you put him in an episode of your show?
It is my dream! Having worked around Les for all these years, we all have a sense for how dynamic he is. I'd put my money on Les. I think he might surprise us at how good he is at the various jobs. He's obviously very famous, so we'd have to go really deep to pass him off. But let's have him painting on Infinity billboards, let's get him running the dub rack at an owned-and-operated station in a smaller market, he can drive a news van. I think he'd be fabulous. I bet we can have him delivering dubs around Hollywood as a production assistant and no one would notice.
Undercover Boss airs Sunday nights at 9pm on CBS.