Cable Celibacy (Originally published 2007)

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My daughter stared blankly at the young woman.

“You know, the Cheetah Girls!” the teen enthused, doing a shimmy as if that would jog my three-year-old’s memory.

“Uhm, she really doesn’t,” I said, compelled to step in and explain. “My daughter is only three, and she lives in a cable-free home.”

“Oh!” the girl exclaimed. I could see that I might as well have just announced I was growing a third arm as she registered a home without cable. “Well, what about Radio Disney? The Cheetah Girls are played about every second song.”

“No, again. Sorry,” I said, and I meant it as her efforts were truly valiant as she tried to engage my preschooler.

My husband went through the Radio Disney goodie bag we were given on the way home from the Outlets at Castle Rock. “You would not believe what’s in here,” he said.

“I’m sure I don’t want to know,” I replied. “This is one of those moments when our $13 a month basic cable deal is perfect, isn’t it.”

I guess I should have said “almost cable-free”. Long before we had a child, my husband and I agreed basic cable was the way to go. We reasoned that it was better to pay for fifteen channels of nothing versus 500. But tell that to someone (the basic package is not really considered cable), and you get the same kind of reaction I got from the Radio Disney rep.

My daughter watches a few shows on public television, and videos, and that’s about it. One time she attended a child’s birthday party with a Dora the Explorer theme, and I had to try to explain who the backpack-toting cartoon was. Not that this is a bad thing. On the contrary, we can walk by toy aisles at the store without her clamoring for a character she recognizes.

The less TV, the better. For any age group. I’ve done plenty of research on this, even B.C., Before Child. Mostly, it was a means to explain some of the things happening in my eighth grade classrooms. Now I know the evidence of the research can help to explain a lot of people’s negative frames of mind.

I’m certain it was no different when I was a teen, but retrospectively, the stuff we watched was downright wholesome. I can recall when MTV actually showed music videos. I’m under the impression that they don’t any longer; that MTV is now one horridly rehearsed “reality show” after another. Have you ever tuned in to “Next”? It’s almost painful to watch the supposed “daters” stumble over their lines.

Sunday’s paper arrived with the front-page story “Time shrinks between tots and teens”. MSN versed the same information as “10 is the new 15”. Yikes. Kids are growing up faster and faster, this I know, but I can’t possibly be the only one who makes the connection between this fact and the influence of TV.

In 2001 I recorded a Frontline show called “Merchants of Cool”. It was about the “Cool hunters” (there really is such a job) who search malls and high schools for the latest trends, sell the information to the corporate world, and then the advertisers sell it right back to the teens to whom they market their products. Trends are perpetuated for far longer than the former average of five years as a result of this cycle.

Because I was so appalled by what I saw, I offered to stay after school and show it to students and their parents. Invitations went home with all 130 students, and by that night there were ten attendees. I watched one student shrink in his chair as his father grasped what was on the notorious Spring Break episodes of MTV. The parents had no idea this kind of stuff was what was being broadcasted. Since then, I have used this show for the purpose of helping kids to open their eyes, hopefully, to what is being marketed to them.

Which brings me back to the Cheetah Girls. Ironically, in the same Sunday paper, in the USA Weekend section, there they were. I’m pretty sure that like the Monkees, the “band” was born for the movie first. They were described as “A multi-ethnic quartet of New York City teens who juggle friendship with their quest for ‘international superstardom.'” Oh. Well, nothing like humility there, huh? Judging from the picture, humility isn’t a factor as two of them have their chests pushed out as far as physically possible.

Lou Pearlman of Trans Continental Records, famed for the Backstreet Boys, stated in the second movie (Good Grief, there was one before this one.), the Cheetah Girls make the issues they face a “girlfriend thing.” I can’t say I EVER saw one of my girlfriends stand like that, or even use the word “superstar” without laughing.

Obviously, I determined that my daughter wasn’t missing out on anything. The entire goodie bag and its contents went directly to the trash.

The reason we were at the mall in the first place was because they were participating a book drive for Reach Out and Read Colorado. Cable clearly has the upper hand on maintaining a captive audience; to my dismay, my family’s books were the only books in the collection bin.

2015 update: We do now have cable, but have quickly discovered that we purchased 900 channels of nothing. We are simply not as glued to the TV as most (I hardly understand the term “binge-watching”), and watching the same seven channels of the 900 is hardly worth it.

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Got Customer Service? Get it Yourself! (Originally published 2007)

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Customer service is not dead. Taking its last gasping breaths, yes, but, as Monty Python would put it, “not quite dead.” I recently made an on-line purchase and discovered in the shipping confirmation that there was an address error. Naturally, the first live person I managed to contact assumed I had done something wrong when typing in my address. Probably – I’m not the most tech-savvy person. However, years ago no customer service person would dare suggest such a thing to a money-wielding shopper.

It used to be those in retail lived by the motto “The customer is always right.” Having been on the other side of the counter a few times, I know for a fact this isn’t true. Regardless, living by that rule made things much more pleasant.

Common courtesy and etiquette rules have mostly gone out the window when it comes to relations between customer and cashier. Or customer service representative, hospitality host, or whatever the politically correct term-du-jour may be.

I have witnessed my share of shoddy customer relations and know that it’s a direct reflection of our times. There’s a vicious cycle working over the counter of the cashier thinking the customer isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, and vice-versa. I’m sure it may have always been this way, since the first caveman passed a few shells over the boulder for some flint, but what’s apparent now is that there’s no hesitation in expressing these feelings on either part.

I recently got my engagement ring back from a jeweler repairing a chip in the stone. It took almost nine weeks. Repeated phone calls for a progress report went unanswered week after week, and when I did get someone, it was always someone else’s fault: the gem-cutter’s. I was as nice as could be for as long as could be, but this was my engagement ring here, not some bauble I wouldn’t miss for over two months.

When I finally got to pick up my ring, the apologies were mumbled and paltry. Absolutely no effort was made to keep me as a customer. Clearly, they couldn’t care less if I ever returned. I had become “That” customer and I knew it, but their lack of attentiveness forced me into that role.

Believe me, I am not so naive as to think there aren’t just some plain nasty, self-righteous consumers out there. I’ve seen them. But I do know that a lot of people truly miss good customer service. These are the people who will sometimes shop high-end stores they can’t really afford just to get that level of service.

It has become apparent that some in the retail business don’t even know how to offer good service. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve waited for items to be bagged while the employees are loudly discussing when their next break is, or what they did last night. I usually try to keep my head down and get out as fast as possible because a) I don’t like feeling like I’m inconveniencing anyone, and b) some of the things I’ve heard sound pretty close to illegal.

I’ve had one customer agent simply tilt a phone away from her mouth and glare at me while I waited for her to finish her personal call so I could ask a question. Rather than get into it with her, I took it up with her management. They needed to know that this was unacceptable, and she was more likely to listen to them than me. If we, as consumers, continue to put up with this type of behavior, nothing will ever change.

So the bright spot in this commentary is that I did have a good customer service experience recently. Back to the on-line purchase I made, I contacted a real person who made the corrections for me, catching the package before it ended up in a postal black hole. I thanked him profusely, telling him I had just about given up on customer service. He vowed to “single-handedly restore the concept”. He may very well have to. I hope his management took notice, and that a number of other folks out there are also listening.