One of my favorite first-world criticisms of Netflix is the ol’ “there’s never anything to watch.” To me this seems a bit close-minded because I believe the site is truly a treasure trove of education if you’re willing to lower your expectations a couple of notches. Opening yourself up to mindless content can unexpectedly reward you with some slices of life that offer a glimpse at complex nuances of modern-day American society.
Of these unexpected finds, I think one of the most interesting shows to watch is “Undercover Boss,” a primetime CBS show that puts corporate bosses in the thick of their company’s operations. This show offers us the opportunity to see some pretty interesting situations: A 7/11 board member working rush hour in a city branch, Subway’s CEO scrambling to keep up with orders and the DirecTV CEO trying to install the company’s systems on rooftops, all while complaining about the tedious work and the high output expectations.
The perceived value of such a show is clear — it’s a show for the working class American who knows his labor is, well, laborious. Executives and money-movers are lampooned for being unable to perform the tasks of their employees much to the pleasure of the general public.
The kicker, though, is that in every episode’s closing, each executive gives some form of token award to certain workers they encountered during their excursion to the frontlines. These awards vary from scholarships for humble cashiers to gifting franchise rights to longtime employees.
As nice as that sounds, I believe that overall, the awards and the show as a whole are essentially nothing more than a form of “bluewash” marketing. “Bluewash” is a negatively connoted term that is generally used to refer to the practice of a company boosting its own public appearance using gifts, outreach programs, advertising, etc. that does not actually reflect the company’s operations. Thus, while entertaining, this show is basically a 30-minute commercial designed to showcase the worker-friendly actions of these companies, even when the companies featured are often wholly opposed to worker-friendly movements. Some of these companies even oppose movements as universally supported as an increased minimum wage.
With the negative aspects of each company’s policies greatly overshadowed by the generosity of one CEO towards a select group of employees, the show is then marketed and packaged for the pleasure of blue-collar workers everywhere. It’s a successful and rather cheap model that highlights a few lucky individuals to give hope to an exploited bunch.
ABC’s “Shark Tank,” a show that pits eager entrepreneurs looking for investments up against a panel of potentially interested millionaires, is very similar to “Undercover Boss” in a glaringly obvious way. Both show champions a few success stories to help soften the harsh gap between the enormous wealth of corporate businesspeople and the average person. I find that “Shark Tank,” like “Undercover Boss,” amounts to nothing more than an investment in corporate-public relations. These shows clearly show two sides of America with one message — trust the money.
However, I suppose that shows like “Undercover Boss” and “Shark Tank” make sense when you realize they’re being broadcast alongside stuff like “Toddlers & Tiaras.” TLC isn’t the Learning Channel anymore, and the History Channel certainly isn’t about history, either. The movement towards worthless television stations like History or TLC have to make in order to stay relevant only serves to reaffirm the need to fight for publicly funded media outlets. Thanks to the contribution of taxpayers and people just like you, things like PBS and NPR, along with Mr. Rogers, Big Bird and Ira Glass have been able to mold our culture in ways that “Toddlers & Tiaras” could only hope to do.
The move away from public funding and towards the corporatization of American media has been happening for decades now. A quick analysis of the media landscape over the past 30 years will yield one result — there has been an enormous consolidation of power. Six media conglomerates control 90 percent of what we all consume on a daily basis. Only six! Figure in the amount of executives at these companies and you’re looking at no more than a few 100 people who control the vast majority of what kinds of information people see and hear in this country. Not to mention the fact that each of these six outlets is so heavily tied up in politics and economics that no story gets through without being thoroughly checked for content that may be offensive to the sponsors.
We must question what comes next for balanced public interest content with cable cutters moving in droves to streaming services like Netflix. Only one thing is for sure, the media landscape is only one of many facets of our society corrupted by corporate stranglehold. Time will only tell if it’s corrupted all the way to the core.
Mario Vasquez would bring Mr. Rogers back if he had one wish.
A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, January 16, 2014 print edition of the Daily Nexus.
Views expressed on the Opinion page do not necessarily reflect those of the Daily Nexus or UCSB. Opinions are submitted primarily by students.