CNBC shines a funny, bright spotlight on employment interviews.
It starts with gripping music.
Then come Chris Parnell's dramatic and sonorous tones, sounding like the voiceover on a nature special — just as a lion is about to pounce: "This ordinary office is a gateway to another world, one of financial independence and life-changing opportunity."
Thus begins The Job Interview, a half-hour CNBC reality series that follows candidates vying for a job.
The show originated on Channel 4 in the U.K., where it was "a giant hit," according to Jim Ackerman, CNBC's executive vice-president, primetime alternative, who executive-produces the series for the network with Christian Barcellos and Luke Bauer. The first time he saw it, Ackerman was convinced it fit the network's lineup, along with The Profit, Billion Dollar Buyer and Jay Leno's Garage, among others.
He was attracted by "the simplicity of its format," he says. "It was about jobs and business, and I thought the program was funny and nuanced. I watched and got emotionally vested, rooting for [a particular applicant] to get the job."
Setting it up in the U.S. proved relatively easy. The production company, ITV Entertainment, rented space in lower Manhattan, hired two receptionists and set up 20 unobtrusive cameras around the office.
It found a number of entrepreneurial companies that were advertising jobs and willing to go through the process on camera. These ranged from a real estate firm to a plastic surgery practice to a house-cleaning franchising firm. The companies selected the candidates, with no interference from CNBC. Once contacted, prospects were told about the concept and, if they agreed to participate, they were flown to New York, where the network put them up.
In its first season, the U.S. show exceeded all of Ackerman's expectations.
Its 11 episodes are indeed dramatic, involving and funny, in ways that anyone who has ever gone through a tough job interview (or audition) can appreciate. There are moments of flop sweats — literally, for one candidate — and brain freezes. One woman claims she doesn't want to go back into public accounting — until reminded that she's applying for a job at a CPA firm. Another gets lost in the hallway between the reception area and the interview room.
Equally interesting are some of the hoops the candidates have to jump through. That CPA firm, looking for a bookkeeper, asks candidates to draw a four-bedroom, two- bath house and answer the question: if your pet could talk, what would it say about you?
It turns out not everyone is eager to find a job in the glare of a national spotlight. Katelyn Humphrey had been searching online job sites for about six months looking for work that "I could enjoy," she says.
Because she has a swimming background, she was attracted to an ad for a manager opening at Swim Kids, a school with five locations in the Washington, D.C.–area. But when she heard the interview would be televised, well, it created "an interesting conundrum."
She explains, "I was very excited about Swim Kids and wanted to interview, but I do not like being the center of attention, so I didn't want to be on the show part. So I went to my Bible study group that night and told them about it. We talked about it and prayed about it, and the Bible study group convinced me I was crazy if I didn't go."
Humphrey says all thoughts about the hidden cameras evaporated during the interview. "You just have to be who you are. Interviewing is nerve-racking enough, so that everything else fell by the wayside." Onscreen, the competition proves fierce and, as Ackerman hoped, very involving. Humphrey appears to be running neck and neck with another candidate, and it's impossible to tell who will emerge victorious. In the end, the job goes to Humphrey.
The show works creatively, but that's not all. It also attracted a new and younger audience to the network and was its number-one new series among adults 18 to 49 last year.
Finally, here's a spoiler: when a candidate gets in the elevator and hears a voice say, "going down" as the doors close, those words refer to more than the elevator's direction.
Viewers can catch up on The Job Interview on demand, at CNBC.com or on the CNBC app.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 7, 2018