As the years roll by, I find myself watching less and less television due to several reasons. The main reason being simply the lack of time. Another reason is that while there is a proliferation of networks and shows (Walmart is the latest entry into the field), I find the content mostly unappealing. I gave up on sit-coms a long time ago. Although I recently gave the show Baskets on Fx a try. It stars one of my favorite comics Louie Anderson in a gender switch as the matriarch of a carnival/rodeo family. While Louie is great, the rest of the cast including Zach Galifiankis who is usually a reliable actor, suffers in his dual role-playing Anderson’s twin sons. One critic sums up the show quite well by declaring it very, very, good or very, very, bad. It’s too hard to tell. Other than that, I can usually punch the line well before its punched by some formulaic comic actor. Dramas? Seen ‘em, done ‘em, got the t-shirt. Do we really need a new incarnation of CSI? No,
we don’t, just like we don’t need another Fast and Furious, Rocky, Transformers, Chucky, or Halloween sequel. Whenever a show or movie bills itself as The Final Chapter, you can rest assured there’s still more to come.
But when I do find the time to watch television, most of what I gravitate toward are reality shows such as American Pickers, Storage Wars, and Pawn Stars. There’s something appealing about discovering a rare find that sparks an interest in its historical context. Also, CNBC (NBC’s business network) serves up a compelling batch of shows that I find fascinating such as The Profit, Shark Tank, and American Greed. I like it when narrator Stacy Keach turns “greed” into a six-syllable word. However, the one show I keep coming back to is Undercover Boss. Its premise is simple – CEOs from across America representing some of its most iconic brands don a disguise and go undercover to find out first hand how their respective businesses are performing.
A typical show comprises the boss going to 3-4 job sites mingling with employees and interacting with customers – from warehouses to store fronts. What is predictable is the “boss’s” ineptitude at basic functions such as cash register operations, logistics, sales, and good old customer service. In other words, they suck. But along the way, they meet some wonderful, salt of the earth employees who share their personal stories of bad luck, family turmoil, health issues…you name it. It seems they are a lot like you and me. The “boss” is usually genuinely touched by these stories and so is the viewership. It tugs at the heart strings and sometimes brings a tear to the eye. Also, many of these CEOs weren’t born with a silver spoon in their mouths. Their Horatio Alger type of existence is truly inspiring. Occasionally however, the show
goes awry when an employee exhibits atrocious behavior, or the boss gets recognized by the work crew.
The show concludes with the boss ditching the disguise (thank goodness) and revealing him or herself as the CEO of XYZ Corporation. The boss then proceeds to shower the impacted employees with monetary gifts ranging from scholarships to funds to pay off mortgages and personal debt. Promotions are also a means of rewarding these employees as well as the occasional new car. Hugs and tears of joy ensue. But herein lies the weakness of the show. For every Tom, Dick, and Sally who is rewarded, there are tens of thousands of other employees with just as compelling personal stories who won’t receive a dime. But who cares about that, right? Viewers are convinced by a company’s altruistic CEO that it is a business worth patronizing. A public relations coup indeed even as warts and all are exposed by the show.
With that being stated, the overriding consideration that keeps me watching at least is the opportunity for these CEOs to get out of their own literal comfort zone and trek across America to work on the front lines of their businesses. I’m constantly amazed that they are often unaware of small problems that could turn into ticking time bombs. Persistent problems that occur are the crashing and burning of computer operational systems, flaws in the manufacturing process, understaffing, and over promising. And several layers of middle management can’t seem to tell the boss the bad news.
Sears, the once mighty retailer has of this writing declared bankruptcy. Headed by Eddie Lampert, it has been in a death spiral for more than a decade. It never quite adjusted to online retailing. It’s valued customers of the past simply passed away. Its stores low on inventory and morale. Infrastructure of many of its stores literally began to crumble with no plans to fix them. All the while, Mr. Lampert has tried to keep the ship afloat from his home in Florida. Nothing wrong with that, with today’s communication platforms one could almost work anywhere on earth. But while Lampert commands the post from sunny Florida, another store closing in the rust belt impacts hard working employees responsible for taking care of their families. It sends the wrong message. Apparently according to various reports, Lampert hadn’t ventured to one of his stores in
years. It shows. And you won’t be seeing an Undercover Boss episode starring Mr. Lampert. It’s too late.