News Column

As 'The Office' ends, other workplace shows find a big TV audience

May 18, 2013

YellowBrix

May 18--When "The Office" crew clocked out Thursday night, the workers had been at the fictional Dunder Mifflin Paper Co. for nine seasons, or about twice as long as the average job tenure for most Americans.

But even as everyday workers tend to complain about their jobs and bosses and quickly jump ship for better opportunities, viewers have shown remarkable loyalty to TV programs about the workplace.

Whether they're sitcoms, "mockumentaries" such as "The Office" or so-called reality TV, programs set where people work dot the network and cable channel spectrum. Collectively, millions of viewers are watching such shows daily -- whether it's a rural Southern family that makes duck calls, a boss who goes undercover to do his employees' jobs, or a cast of fake parks and recreation department employees.

Clearly, Americans are happy to devote their leisure hours to watching shows about the workplace and the characters who inhabit it.

"Here are all the people who are uncomfortably close approximations of people in your workplace," said television critic Aaron Barnhart. "They're popular because you can connect with the characters and have permission to make fun of them."

The flood of workplace shows, which turn everyday hassles like jammed copiers and incompetent managers into half-hour plot lines, builds on a theme well established by the Dilbert comic strip. All it took to make appealing programs, according to TV reality show producer Mark Burnett, was to put "interesting people in ordinary circumstances."

That's what endeared fans to "The Office." Greg Daniels, the show's developer and executive producer, has called it "a show with a lot of micro-moments." And people liked the cast members.

But the micro-moments of everyday work life are hardly enough to sustain viewer interest. So people who perhaps are bored with their own jobs are finding escape with adrenaline-infused shows about fishing in Alaska, coal mining and over-the-road trucking. They have also become eyes on the wall in a hair salon, a mortuary, a motorcycle shop and many restaurants.

"Most re-create real life with versions of people we know," Barnhart said, adding that the shows work well when they balance authenticity with occasionally over-the-top situations.

That balance sometimes is tough. Donald Trump fires contestants in clearly fabricated business situations. But the Fox network is tipping to the authenticity side with a show scheduled to debut later this month.

"Does Someone Have to Go?" promises to hold real-life employees' futures in the balance. According to the show's website: "The unscripted series gives employees a voice in assessing how their company is functioning, inviting them to make recommendations on how best to solve their issues in order to make their company better and giving them the power to determine the fates of their fellow staffers."

Previews show a company where owners have agreed to hand over the management reins for a few days and allow cameras to record the high drama when workers find out what each other makes and weigh in on which co-workers should be fired. It can be squirmy stuff to see pink slips handed out -- far different from watching the flirtations and petty squabbles on "The Office."

Susan Ryan, an associate professor of communication at the College of New Jersey, has written about what she calls "the paradox of labor in reality TV." Over the last few years, when millions of Americans have lost their jobs or dealt with stagnant wages, she observes, "full employment" has dominated television programming.

"The irony of labor becoming spectacle at a time when workers struggle daily to remain employed would be almost comic if it were not for the insidious way that these shows obscure real power relations under the guise of entertainment," Ryan wrote in a Web posting.

In the end, most workplace reality shows are "manipulated authenticity," she said.

Pepi Leistyna, a professor in applied linguistics at the University of Massachusetts Boston who specializes in cultural and media studies, has criticized TV depictions of working people as "clowns or social deviants" -- labels that could be attached to the characters of Michael Scott and Dwight Schrute on "The Office."

So there's a good offset, Leistyna notes, in creating the man-against-nature stars of workplace reality programs such as "Deadliest Catch." The Alaskan fishing show points the camera at real people fighting real odds, and viewers took the bait. The show became the Discovery Channel's most watched series.

That's the formula followed by Thom Beers, whose company has produced more than a dozen reality shows dominated by dangerous or dirty workplaces. In an interview last year, Beers said his programming works because Americans "want to watch real people, having real-life experiences, facing true challenges."

"Duck Dynasty," a real-people look at a Louisiana family that makes millions making duck calls, shattered viewing records last year on the A&E cable channel. Its 6.5 million viewers beat out popular network competition "Survivor" and "The X Factor" by one head-to-head measure.

As ascendant as they are, workplace shows have far to go to challenge the reigning reality kings, "American Idol," "The Voice," "Dancing With the Stars," and "Survivor," in viewership. Given the plethora of channels and viewing experiences, those performance and star-studded shows are top draws with just 12 million or so live viewers.

And few job-focused programs gain the notoriety of family and relationship programming like "Jersey Shore," "The Real Housewives," and "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo." But against the entertainment odds, workplace shows have carved a niche.

After all, for a majority of American adults, work consumes one-third, or maybe more, of their daily lives. They can relate to on-screen jobs or revel in someone on TV having it worse than they do.

As the character of Pam said to close "The Office" finale about Dunder Mifflin's nine mockumentary years: "There's a lot of beauty in ordinary things. Isn't that kind of the point?"

To reach Diane Stafford, call 816-234-4359 or send email to stafford@kcstar.com.

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(c)2013 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

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