Fox reality show spotlights Downers Grove business
This time "you're fired" is more than a Donald Trump catchphrase. Fox is turning the firing of real people from real jobs into prime-time entertainment.
And they start it off in Downers Grove.
The network on Thursday will begin airing "Does Someone Have to Go?" a series where cameras go into small businesses and employees are compelled to rat out underperforming colleagues. At the end, they choose one co-worker to recommend for firing.
"This is the thing they promise to do in retreats but nobody really does it," said Mike Darnell, executive in charge of alternative programming for Fox.
Thursday's first episode focuses on Velocity Merchant Services, a company based in Downers Grove that sells credit card processing machines. Sixteen employees participate, and the show quickly labels them: There's the procrastinator, the motor mouth, the jerk, the slacker and the tattle-tale.
Each employee is interviewed on camera talking about colleagues, then everyone is called into a conference room to see what the others said. They are also told each other's salaries, before voting on three of their colleagues that most deserve firing, a process that reduces one woman to tears.
Then, in the ultimate reality show twist, the 16 employees are brought into a conference room where the video screen shows portraits of each of them. One by one, a picture is removed, until only the three "losers" remain onscreen. One is the mother of company founder Dema Barakat, judged by her colleagues to be a management mole who is paid too much.
Next week: choosing who among the three get to keep their jobs.
The show's executive producer, Chris Abrego, said it is "absolutely not cruel. It's not like a random firing ... It really is a process of them proving their value to the company."
Why would a company put itself through this? Publicity is alluring, particularly for a small firm, and a show like "Undercover Boss" on CBS has proven beneficial to many companies that have participated, said Geoff Wilson, president and CEO of 352 Media Group, a digital marketing agency based in Gainesville, Fla., that seriously considered being part of the show. Producers offered to pay the company $25,000 to participate and would spruce up the office to make it more camera-friendly. Each employee who agreed to be part of it would be paid $1,500. Producers would contribute $10,000 toward a severance package for anyone fired, he said.
Velocity, or VMS, is a family-run company that had hit a plateau, said Danoush Khairkhah, CEO and Barakat's husband. Its biggest problems were with personalities, not with business, he said.
"Opportunity knocks only several times in your life," Khairkhah said.
He was interested to see how his employees would perform when given the chance to take issues into their own hands. They knew what they were getting into, he said, although they didn't know specifically they would see film of colleagues criticizing them or learn their salaries.
"It's not bad to sit there and hear what your colleagues think of you," he said. "How many times in your life does someone sit you down and say, 'Here are the things I don't like about you?' That's great. Now you can correct them and go on the right path. Some people can, and some people crumble when they hear negative things."
Things have improved at VMS since the show was filmed over five days last December, he said. Employees are taking more initiative and aren't afraid to speak up about problems. Khairkhah and his employees haven't seen the show yet. They plan a party Thursday night to all watch it together when it airs at 7 p.m.
He does have some concerns after seeing commercials promoting the show.
"No one wants to see a commercial about your business saying 'toxic office,'" he said. "If it was toxic, we wouldn't be here 15 years. When I saw that I was kind of shocked. But I understand this is show business and they've got to build up drama."
Darnell and Fox have pushed the boundaries of reality TV since it was first recognized as a genre, from the highs of "American Idol" to the lows of "Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?" He said he sees "Does Someone Have to Go?" as a new direction for a programming form dominated by singing and dancing competitions.
It's a revamped version of a show, then called "Someone's Gotta Go," that Fox had been working on with the Endemol production company four years ago. In its initial incarnation, employees were given the power to determine who should be laid off within companies that needed to shrink for economic reasons. The show drew awful advance publicity -- one magazine called it a step toward public executions -- and never aired.
Along with the softer name, the new version takes the economy out of it; productivity and personality are at the roots of employment decisions. A firing isn't necessarily mandated -- probation or options like anger management counseling are considered. Within the three companies profiled for the six episodes, Darnell said that people are fired.
352 Media Group was very close to participating, Wilson said. Most of his employees wanted to, although there was a vocal minority. He was told the show was called "Office Life," he said, but noticed a clause in the contract that gave producers the right to change the title if they wanted.
Hmmmm. That made him suspicious.
"I wouldn't say the producers lied to us," he said. "I would say that they creatively represented the facts." (Abrego said that dealings with the companies have been "100 percent above board.")
After Wilson turned Endemol down, producers sent him a copy of a show pilot to see what it was like and offer advice. He breathed a sigh of relief; his company depends on teams working well together and a public airing of dirty laundry would have been devastating, he said.
"I am unbelievably happy that our sixth sense told us to stay away from this," Wilson said.