A pair of antique enthusiasts are engaging audiences in the US and the UAE on the TV programme American Pickers.
American Pickers turns junk into ratings gold
What's not to like about hopping in a shiny white Mercedes Sprinter van and traipsing across America on a whim, pockets full of hundred-dollar bills, rummaging through other people's junk and buying whatever you feel will make you hundreds more?
In this recessionary age when jobs are gems, economies are quivering and even France gets its credit rating knocked down a notch, American Pickers represents the ultimate freedom to forge one's own destiny, to keep the wolf from the door and, best of all, to have a hoot of a time doing it.
It's hard to believe that a reality show about two everyday guys in Iowa who collect junk — Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz — which premiered on the History Channel in North America two years ago this month, achieved Top 10 ratings status in the US over the recent Christmas and New Year holidays.
"We're pickers," the charming but unsentimental Wolfe says with pride. "We travel the back roads of America looking for rusty gold. We're looking for amazing things buried in people's garages and barns. What most people see as junk, we see as dollar signs. We'll buy anything we think we can make a buck on. Each item we pick has a history all its own and the people we meet are a breed all their own. We make a living telling the history of America ... one piece at a time."
American Pickers is the freshest evolution of shows such as Antiques Roadshow — the great grand-daddy of the genre, which first aired in 1979 in the UK — where the genteel bring their household hand-me-downs to expert appraisers, and whose eyes light up like a video slot when they get a juicy appraisal. It's already spawned the likes of Auction Hunters and Storage Wars (where people bid on abandoned storage units then sell the contents for profit), Auction Kings (a reality peek inside the auction business) and Auction Party (a game show played out in the contestant's living room).
For folks who find fussing about money crass, there's always the fascinating history, provenance and cultural significance of the items to consider from the couch. No need to climb through cobwebbed barns looking for them. American Pickers also provides a rich panorama of alternative backwoods culture in America.
For people who find fussing about money their life's mission, there's also Pawn Stars, which details the exploits of the Harrison family — Richard "The Old Man", Rick "The Spotter", Corey "Big Hoss" and the butt-of-all-jokes, Austin "Chumlee" Russell — who tastefully haggle people who need money right down to their pocket lint at the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Why these shows are currently enjoying a winning streak is hardly a mystery to Dawn Johnston, a communication and culture professor at the University of Calgary.
"For consumers, they hold the 'it could happen to me' appeal," says Johnston. "In the same way that we watch all reality TV, there is an underlying feeling that the participants, no matter how extreme their behaviour, are 'real' people ... When we watch their good fortune, we think: 'Hey ... maybe that could happen to me!"
And good things are definitely happening for the hustlers we see in these shows.
"With shows like Storage Wars and Antiques Roadshow, there is definitely the added interest in the treasures that could be hiding at garage sales, thrift stores, or in our own garages and attics. In a time when the media feeds us cautionary tales of pathological hoarders — and really ... whose grandparents wouldn't have fit into that description at some point? — we are already more inclined to be sifting through our 'stuff'."
It all boils down to one thought, concludes Johnston: "In an economic climate where so many people are struggling, these television shows really make us wonder if we are sitting on a small fortune in our own homes with our own 'junk'."
And fame has certainly crowned this new breed of reality TV hero — despite the fact they make their bucks on the backs of people who don't know what their treasures are worth.
"I have people running up to me all the time, wanting my autograph, hugging me and kissing me," says Pawn Stars' Harrison. "I'm still a normal, nerdy guy."
But Wolfe puts it most humbly: "I never see myself as someone on a billboard or on a screen. Two years ago, I was sleeping in my van. When people come up to me and they love the show, that's what it's all about."
- American Pickers is broadcast Saturday, Monday and Wednesday on History Channel. Pawn Stars is broadcast Sunday, Monday and Wednesday on History Channel. Storage Wars returns February 7 and is broadcast Tuesday and Wednesday on History Channel. Antiques Roadshow is broadcast daily on BBC Lifestyle. Auction Hunters returns February 9 and is broadcast on Sunday, Thursday and Friday on Discovery Channel. Auction Kings is broadcast Sunday to Friday on Discovery Channel. Auction Party is broadcast on Friday and Saturday on ITV Granada.
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