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Producer has plan to keep 'Boss' going

Published: Friday, March 5 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

A lot of people who work in or write about the television industry were, to put it mildly, surprised when CBS scheduled the premiere of "Undercover Boss" after the Super Bowl.

Including yours truly.

What? Yet another reality show with a rather hokey premise gets the best lead-in on all of TV?

Well, it turns out that the folks at CBS knew what they were doing. "Undercover Boss" is the surprise hit of the season.

On Sunday, the fourth episode was the second-most-watched show of the night, trailing only the final night of the Winter Olympics. And the second half-hour of "Boss" actually beat the Olympics among the all-important 18-49 demographic.

Who would have thought that a show about the head of a big company clandestinely going to work as an underling would be so popular?

And yet the show is so well-produced and entertaining that, in a way, it's not that big of a surprise. At least not to the folks at CBS who had such confidence in it.

The biggest question at this point is: How will the producers be able to keep this going? Now that "Undercover Boss" is a hit, how will they be able to keep up the pretense?

Now that tens of millions of people have seen the show, you'd think it would be far more difficult for the boss to show up, trailed by a camera crew, and not be instantly identifiable.

Production on the first batch of episodes was completed before the show premiered. And the presence of cameras was explained by telling employees it was part of a documentary about entry-level workers.

"That will be something that we have to address," said executive producer Stephen Lambert. "We've got a number of ideas how we're going to deal with that, which aren't necessarily ideas that I think are good for me to articulate now."

So, he's got a plan. But it's a secret plan.

As silly as that sounds, it's plausible. After all, if you'd told me five weeks ago that "Undercover Boss" would be a big hit — even up against the Winter Olympics — I would have scoffed.

Lambert promised that, while the mechanics behind production will change a bit, the premise of the show won't be any different.

"I think the principle of the boss who doesn't really know what it's like on the front line is a principle that is strong and one that we can build a longtime series on," Lambert said. "Quite how we execute it as the series develops is something, obviously, we will do in discussion with CBS.

"But I think the fundamental idea of experiencing what your workers do is something that has a long future."

BALLOON BOY PROBLEM: Before he produced "Undercover Boss," Lambert was the executive producer of "Wife Swap."

And the most famous alumnae of that show are the Heene family — better known as the people behind the "balloon boy" hoax.

Richard and Mayumi Heene and their children were actually featured on "Wife Swap" twice; after their initial episode, they were "fan favorites" on the series' 100th episode.

Given the extremes the Heenes went to to land their own reality show — the apparent reason for the whole balloon-boy hoax — how do we know that anything that happened during their time on "Wife Swap" was for real?

Well, we don't.

"There's no doubt that when you're casting any program with real people, you've got to find that mixture of people that are going to feel comfortable about having a camera pointing at them and yet still essentially behaving normally," Lambert said. "If they're just doing it because they want to be on a TV show, then, on the whole, it doesn't work. They come across as not authentic."

But some people are better at faking it than others. And the Heenes — who both took acting classes — apparently were better at it than most.

The fact remains, however, that viewers would be wise to take anything that happens on a "reality" show with a grain of salt.

Not surprisingly, Lambert said that's not really a problem with "Undercover Boss." And, clearly, there's a fundamental difference between how people end up on this show and how they end up on "Wife Swap."

"With 'Wife Swap,' people apply to be on it," Lambert said. "But this show, nobody applies to be on it."

There are, of course, discussions between the companies involved and the producers. And the bosses on "Undercover Boss" are clearly acting — it's part of the premise for them to act like entry-level employees.

But the other employees are more in "Candid Camera" mode.

"Once we have got the agreement of the companies, we do research within the company to try to work out where we think it would be good for the boss to go," Lambert said. "But in that sense, we're much more likely to come across people that wouldn't dream of being on television who agreed to be on it because we asked them nicely and they know their company's in favor of doing it. So I think, yes, we're able to capture people as they genuinely are."

"Undercover Boss" airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on CBS/Ch. 2.

e-mail: pierce@desnews.com

Friday on TV

High school basketball (Ch. 14): 5A semifinals (2 and 4 p.m.); 4A semifinals (5:30 and 7 p.m.)

Ghost Whisperer (7 p.m., Ch. 2): A ghost warns Melinda about a bomb.

Who Do You Think You Are? (7 p.m., Ch. 5): Debut of this surprisingly engaging series in which celebrities investigate their genealogy and family history. First up: Sarah Jessica Parker.

College volleyball (7 p.m., BYUTV): Pepperdine at BYU

Caprica (7 and 9 p.m., Syfy): A rival industrialist threatens Daniel; a rogue STO leader (guest star James Marsters) tries to acquire Zoe's avatar program.

Medium (8 p.m., Ch. 2): Allison gets mugged.

Numb3rs (9 p.m., Ch. 2): Two men who were sexually abused by a teacher as children are killed.

Spirit Awards (9 p.m. IFC): Eddie Izzard hosts these awards presented to independent films.

Friday on TV

High school basketball (Ch. 14): 5A semifinals (2 and 4 p.m.); 4A semifinals (5:30 and 7 p.m.)

Ghost Whisperer (7 p.m., Ch. 2): A ghost warns Melinda about a bomb.

Who Do You Think You Are? (7 p.m., Ch. 5): Debut of this surprisingly engaging series in which celebrities investigate their genealogy and family history. First up: Sarah Jessica Parker.

College volleyball (7 p.m., BYUTV): Pepperdine at BYU

Caprica (7 and 9 p.m., Syfy): A rival industrialist threatens Daniel; a rogue STO leader (guest star James Marsters) tries to acquire Zoe's avatar program.

Medium (8 p.m., Ch. 2): Allison gets mugged.

Numb3rs (9 p.m., Ch. 2): Two men who were sexually abused by a teacher as children are killed.

Spirit Awards (9 p.m. IFC): Eddie Izzard hosts these awards presented to independent films."Undercover Boss" airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on CBS/Ch. 2.

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