NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- "Turning average Joes into CEOs." That's the tag line for A&E's new reality TV show, "Be the Boss." The show, which premiered this past Sunday featuring nutritional supplement retail franchise Complete Nutrition, pits two lower-level store employees against each other to compete for what is supposed to be a big promotion at corporate headquarters. In reality, the two are competing for the chance to become the owner of a new franchise location (with the runner-up still winning that corporate promotion). As the economic recovery trudges along in fits and starts, A&E is betting television viewers will relate to the employees' struggles to better their careers, in this case achieving the American Dream by becoming their own boss through franchise ownership. More importantly, the show highlights that the price for ownership doesn't come without hard work and a key component to any successful franchise: valuable employees. The franchise industry reported 2.2% growth in September over the previous year, the largest since the beginning of the recession. That suggests franchising is playing a major part in the economic recovery, according to the International Franchise Association. "As the economy has sputtered, and folks have lost their jobs or are considering a career change, franchising has become an increasingly popular industry for aspiring entrepreneurs to consider," says Matt Haller, a spokesman for the IFA. "Franchising is a proven, structured and very scalable model that can be (and has been) an important component of our nation's economy." Companies also to be featured in the first season of "Be the Boss" include Auntie Anne's, Signal 88 Security, Molly Maid, Jazzercise and The Melting Pot. "We have been approached in the past by other reality shows. I think it comes back to the values," says Bill Dunn, president and COO of Auntie Anne's. "The vision of 'Be the Boss' and our vision and values as a company were very much aligned. It was an easy decision to make. It comes back to the American Dream -- recognizing individuals for their efforts and giving them opportunities that maybe they never had had before. They had all the tools, but they might not have had all the financial needs." "When those doors open of the winner's store they're not only going to have the tools, but the ongoing support from our franchise business consultants in the field working with our franchisee partners on a daily basis," Dunn says. The Auntie Anne's episode airs Dec. 16. "Be the Boss" was created by the same team behind CBS' hit series "Undercover Boss," which debuted in 2010. In "Undercover Boss," CEOs of well-known franchise brands including BrightStar Care, Fastsigns and Cinnabon don disguises in order to experience the jobs of lower-level employees without being noticed. The hope is that by hanging out in the trenches, they will gain a better insight into how to improve their companies. What ends up happening in many cases is the CEOs are learning -- in some cases for the first time -- the difficulty and knowledge needed to do each job as well as the motivation behind the workers, many of whom suffer hardships, giving a human element to the show. Next year, CNBC is expected to launch a show called "Franchised." It too will be a competition in which five contestants, each "high in qualifications, but short on cash," will vie for their own franchise to run. "It's an emotional once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and a shot at the American Dream," CNBC says in a press release. A spokeswoman said the project is currently in development and declined to comment further. Three shows covering franchising in less than three years -- why is franchising so hot in reality TV? Professor Jim Farrelly, director of film studies at the University of Dayton in Ohio, says the shows keep popping up because they are cheap to produce, play well to the prized 18-49 demographic and "reward ordinary people who are just doing their jobs with extraordinary opportunities for advancement." "Everybody loves a winner and the vicarious thrills that come from experiencing a show like 'Be the Boss' with the tagline, 'From Average Joe to CEO,'" Farrelly writes in an email.
Viewers ought to be aware of the heavy-handed editing in reality shows. While the filming might not be so scripted, the franchise brand is usually shown in the best light. "My fear is that there will be a general misperception among Americans about franchising. They'll say, 'Oh it's this easy. ... This is something that will feed me for the rest of my life," says Don Sniegowski, founder of BlueMauMau, a blog about franchising. "This is dangerous ground. A franchise can be a wonderful thing, but if you get into the wrong concept, particularly with these new franchise systems, some of which are featured, it's dangerous." There is also a concern about a brand, such as Complete Nutrition, that is still unknown to viewers. While the show may be good exposure for newer or smaller brand, and ultimately result in higher sales, is it a proven business? "This is really high stakes for a person who makes a mistake and gets a franchise system that is a dud," Sniegowski says. "If they're going to be on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars, they need to get a sense of the bigger picture." Ryan Zink, president of Complete Nutrition, says he and founder and CEO Cory Wiedel (both featured in Sunday night's premiere) had plenty of discussion internally and with the producers before they agreed to the show.
The company, launched in 2004, has about 160 stores. Eighteen months ago, the company imposed a franchise sales moratorium so that infrastructure could catch up with the amount they had already sold, but the company is now looking to start selling franchises again. "I was really hoping that we'd come off exactly as who we are. We are a young, successful, energy-driven brand that is about changing people's lives. We're not selling shoes or sandwiches. We're changing people's lives through fitness and goals," Zink says. With Complete Nutrition putting up the $150,000 to $200,000 in start-up costs for the winner (which won't open for a few months), another major concern was the quality of the prospective franchisee in the show. Despite being a current employee, that doesn't automatically mean they were qualified to run their own store, Zink says. Being part of a show can hurt productivity and put the corporate team at risk of ridicule from viewers. Molly Maid President Meg Roberts says the company was willing to take the risk. "We were willing to show some of our blemishes on national TV" with the hope of coming out of the experience as a better company, she says, adding that the brand was picked for its strong female leadership team, which would appeal to the show's target audience. Molly Maid is a leading residential cleaning franchise with more than 450 locations nationwide. It is a subsidiary of Service Brands International. The Molly Maid episode airs Dec. 23. "At a basic level, brand awareness was the biggest opportunity for us," Roberts says. "We don't advertise on television. But the benefit we're hoping to achieve was to lift the sales of our local franchisees" and see the brand on such a high-profile show. And to cover their bases, the companies offered cash prizes in case winners didn't want to run a store. Zink says Complete Nutrition offered $30,000. Molly Maid says the winner would have also received a monetary "reward" of some kind. -- Written by Laurie Kulikowski in New York.Follow @LKulikowski To contact Laurie Kulikowski, send an email to: Laurie.Kulikowski@thestreet.com. >To submit a news tip, email: email@example.com.