Fox show brings messy workplaces to television

The Associated PressMay 24, 2013 

— 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 starting this week.

The network on Thursday began 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.

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.

“The network decided the heat was too intense given the economic climate,” Darnell said. “We never lost our affinity for the idea.”

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.

Thursday’s first episode focused on Velocity Merchant Services, a company based in the Chicago suburbs that sells credit card processing machines. Sixteen employees participated, and the show quickly labeled them: 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, Cris 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.

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