Framing and Reality TV

March 9, 2010 Julie Fisher-Rowe

Insights from The Opportunity Agenda

Equality of opportunity is fundamental to the American Dream—we all believe that where you start out in life shouldn’t determine where you end up. Spiking income disparities show us that we are not living up this value, though. Millions of Americans are being left behind, stuck in a generation cycle of poverty or, at very best, a middle income job with little room for advancement.

Two people from the CBS show Undercover Boss are having a conservation
Photo courtesy of CBS

In her blog today, Arianna Huffington asks if CBS’s new reality offering, Undercover Boss, offers a subversive solution to this dynamic. It’s a provocative question, because the world needs a reality show that could turn the genre on its head and maybe spotlight some of the reality that real Americans face, rather than spotlighting primarily those obsessed with fame.

Undercover Boss is not that show. In it, CEOs infiltrate the lower ranks of their organizations, often service industries, to see how business is going on the ground. Huffington proposes that in revealing the reality and conditions of low-wage work and workers, the show allows audiences a somewhat unprecedented look at what it really takes to get by in this country, while also illuminating the stark divide between the haves and have nots. She’s right that there’s an opportunity here to better understand what low wage work looks like, and how unequal our society really is. However, the show does not succeed in subverting the most dominant narrative about income disparities, and that failure lies in its frame.

This is a classic charity frame – the powerful help the powerless out of the goodness of their hearts. It’s not revolutionary, definitely not subversive.

A typical episode depicts a CEO interacting with a variety of low level workers, most of whom have compelling human interest stories that touch his (the episodes I’ve seen have only included male CEOs) heart and motivate him to make small changes that will improve their lives. In one episode an owner meets a fast food worker who has had a heart attack and worries for her health. By the end of the episode, he’s started a healthy living program to encourage employees to start healthier habits. The same owner admonishes others in his company for not realizing how the management practices they are encouraging actually interfere with day-to-day restaurant operations.

Who is the hero here? The good-hearted, but somewhat out-of-touch CEO. The villain? Well, this show does differ from other CBS reality fare in shying away from outright villains (hello Survivor), but if anything, the villains are the middle management that muck up the good intentions of their leader by imposing unnecessary bureaucracy and red tape onto the lower levels. This is a classic charity frame – the powerful help the powerless out of the goodness of their hearts. It’s not revolutionary, definitely not subversive.

What is missing from the solutions posed here is a piece that CBS, or any other network, is unlikely to include: systemic changes that guarantee a living wage, health care and safe working conditions.

So, once in a while a show will give us some interesting food for thought, and maybe Undercover Boss provides some of that. But until we change pop culture’s dominant frames, the solutions that will really change people’s lives will continue to languish outside of both TV and real-world reality.