CBS’ ‘Undercover Boss’ Celebrates 5 Years on the Air

If there’s one thing CBS’ “Undercover Boss” proves after five seasons, it’s that the disjointed relationship between employer and employee is universal.

After nearly 80 episodes of dirty jobs, bad wigs and big reveals in the United States alone, the series in which a chief exec dons a disguise to learn about his company and its workers has 20 localized versions around the globe. Meanwhile, the American and British iterations that launched the franchise appear in more than 250 territories.

“Everybody was skeptical that we could pull it off in terms of multiple seasons,” says creator Stephen Lambert, who also serves as chairman of All3Media America, which produces the CBS version. “We got very good at coming up with reasons as to why we were filming people.”

Lambert developed the British “Undercover Boss” after hearing from a friend who had interviewed the CEO of British Airways about the rocky opening of a terminal at London’s Heathrow Airport.

“(My friend) asked him, ‘When was the last time you went on a British Airways flight?’ The terminal was complete chaos. And he said, ‘I could never do that. I would be recognized.’ The notion of having a boss go undercover grew from that,” Lambert says.

Lambert went to Channel 4 in the U.K., for whom he had created “Wife Swap,” another format that translated well for U.S. audiences. “Undercover Boss” debuted in the U.K. in 2009, then earned 38.6 million viewers for its Stateside premiere immediately following the 2010 Super Bowl.

“I’m very keen on those closed-episode shows that work in Britain. If they work there, then there’s a good chance that they’ll work here,” he says.

Unlike serialized shows like “The Amazing Race” and “Survivor” that build drama over the course of a season, having weekly, closed-ended episodes gives “Undercover Boss” a repeatability.

“It’s a fantastic utility player that performs well in premiere but also can be repeated in the summer,” Lambert says.

Awareness of the show within the territories it appears in has made producing the series easier than it was in the first season, as well.

“In your first season, the bosses who were willing to take part are the bravest because they don’t know what it is, they haven’t seen it, and the element of trust is enormous,” Lambert explains. “It’s still very important that the bosses trust us, but now they know what’s involved, and that’s another part of why it’s a sustainable format.”

Though the format is generally the same in every territory, the American version tends to use more locations, which makes it more expensive to produce.

“CBS was always very clear that they wanted the boss to go to many different states so that it didn’t feel like (it was) just coming from one part of the country,” Lambert says. “It might not look like that on first account, but each episode is its own little film.”

While every CEO who signs on to participate in the series hopes to find out what needs fixing in his organization, philanthropy has also become a hallmark of every episode. Cynics might smirk at watching a multimillionaire listening, wide-eyed, to common stories of economic hardship, but “Boss” participant Stephen J. Cloobeck — the only exec to have appeared in two separate full-length episodes — says the desire to give is real.

“I really learned about what my team members were going through individually,” says Cloobeck, who has set up a $2 million crisis fund for his company’s employees as a direct result of his participation. “I’d recommend it to any chairman or CEO because it will open their eyes up to what their business is really about and change their company forever in the most positive of ways.”

Lambert says the idea for a philanthropic angle grew from his experience in creating ABC’s “Secret Millionaire.” “It’s not just about philanthropy, but the philanthropic elements — the boss doing something for these people that they’ve been working alongside — that’s what gives it emotional power.”

Since the series’ debut, it has gone on to win two Primetime Emmy Awards for reality program in 2012 and 2013. Although the ratings in Season 5 were down from season 4, the March 14 season finale was up a full 30% from the previous season’s ender. CBS has renewed the show for a sixth season, and plans to use it as a midseason replacement series.

“We were able to do a deal with CBS distribution, selling it to Discovery in the form of TLC and OWN, and that’s added to what’s been a great economic performance for us,” Lambert says. “The prize is (having) a reality show on broadcast that can be sold to cable. That was a big day.”

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