When watching last night’s Survivor finale, hearing Jeff Probst announce that the next installment of Survivor (Heroes vs. Villains) was going to begin on February 11th made me extremely happy. It’s not that February 11th is my birthday, or a day that means anything to me, but rather that I knew it wasn’t the day of the Super Bowl, which meant that CBS wasn’t making the mistake of placing a venerable, and safe, franchise in the most coveted timeslot of the year.
But when I came online after Survivor, my elation turned to confusion, as CBS announced that the post-Super Bowl slot would be going to a new reality series called Undercover Boss. And while some part of me is pleased that CBS is becoming the first network in over a decade to put a new show after the big game, the content of me show makes me immediately skeptical. Launching a show via the Super Bowl has often pushed dramas and comedies into creating some really eventful television, and often those shows (like, say, Grey’s Anatomy) have built on that event in order to help establish their identity. However, pulling the pilot of a reality series that’s been done since the summer and placing it into the slot is not the same process, nor is Undercover Boss (a series about executives at major companies taking an entry-level position at said companies) a show that is ever going to evolve into something different than what its already completed season order has established.
And so I’m left lamenting that CBS has chosen a series which is designed to boost their reputation and their ratings rather than the show itself, although I shouldn’t entirely be surprised at this behaviour considering that network hubris is also the source of a rather ludicrous story emerging surrounding what I’m dubbing the “Bizarro Emmys.”
I get why CBS is choosing Undercover Boss to air behind the Super Bowl. It’s a show which blends white collar with blue collar, which is pretty much the audience of the Super Bowl in a nut shell, so the show is going to get a great response coming out of the game. And, when the show snuggles into its timeslot opposite Desperate Housewives and The Celebrity Apprentice, CBS is going to have a pretty good shot at taking the demo crown on Sunday nights with football out of the way. It’s an intelligent strategic move, and I’m not suggesting that CBS is making a mistake here.
However, they are using this slot in a way which suggests that none of their other shows deserve a boost, which is something that sort of bothers me. It’s basically selling the network over the individual series: while they might suggest that they want to make sure the emotional and powerful Undercover Boss is a success, in reality they just want to be able to soak in the credit they’ll get for making a show so topical to our current economic situation and a show which celebrates the working man. They want to announce to the world that they are associated with that program, and what happens after the fact will be measured by advertising dollars and the amount of positive news stories generated – the show itself, and its empowering message, is a means to an end for CBS.
I might be alone in this, but for me the Super Bowl is about pushing shows to the next level. The slot could have been used to further cement The Big Bang Theory’s place at the top of CBS’ comedies, and perhaps pair it with How I Met Your Mother to help establish that show as its equivalent in the 8pm hour. Or you could launch one of the network’s new dramas (like Miami Trauma, from Jerry Bruckheimer) in order to give it a huge initial sampling and develop it into a new hit. Or, you could help boost an existing show (like, say, The Mentalist) by putting it in front of the largest audience it would ever receive. But CBS wasn’t interested in any individual shows and their journeys, but rather the network as a whole, which is understandable as a business practice but also unfortunately transparent in that regard.
And this is why the “Bizarro Emmys,” an effort by the some industry folk and the Paley Centre for Media (which runs the yearly Paley Festival) to create a new awards show to sell to the networks, is so concerning to me. Everyone knows that the networks aren’t happy with the ratings for the Emmys, and that the dominance of cable series is something they find legitimately annoying. However, if you create a new awards show in that environment, your criteria for success is identical to Undercover Boss: if it brings in advertising dollars, and if it is more buzzworthy, it is considered a success.
Perhaps it’s just me, but I feel as if that’s the last thing we need. I wish I was less cynical than this, but I don’t believe that a new awards show can be conceived which doesn’t fall into the trap of valuing financial success over objectivity. And while I am not a purist who believes that any awards show needs to be entirely objective, or that is even possible, I at least like to think that the most important criteria is how the winners are decided as opposed to that the winners are from network shows instead of cable ones, or that the winners are from popular shows as opposed to critical favourites, or disenfranchising movie/miniseries categories from the proceedings. And while some part of me would like to believe Paley would understand what makes a good awards show, their recent emphasis on the popular over the interesting at PaleyFest gives me no hope for their criteria.
There’s no confirmation that this is intended to compete with the Emmys as the networks aren’t actually behind the show, so Paley and its co-producers are more positioning the show has a potential replacement for when the Emmys contract runs out. But when that contract runs out, if the networks abandon the Emmys (which, for all of their faults, are ultimately fairly objective) for a show which more suits their bottom line (by focusing more on their shows and by focusing less on cable series that nobody watches) they are accepting that the most important criteria for an awards show is how much money it makes them, which seems like a terrible idea.
But, if Undercover Boss is any indication, it’s also an idea that the networks might find attractive.