Sunday, May 26, 2013

MANTIQUES ROADSHOW
published as TV's macho hunters and gatherers
Los Angeles Times, January 23 2011

by Simon Reynolds

"Antiques" and "adrenalin" don't seem like they belong in the same sentence. But a new breed of television show makes the finding and selling of vintage items look like a life of adventure.
Whether they are set in pawn shops or peer into the hitherto obscure realm of storage-unit auctions, these hugely popular series ditch the aura of tweedy refinement surrounding precursor programs such as PBS' "Antiques Roadshow" (based on a British import) and instead present antiquing as rugged, manly and all-American.

"You know that feeling you had when you were 11, still believed in Santa, it's Christmas Eve and you're going to bed with a really warm, fuzzy feeling?" asks Darrell Sheets, one of the stars of A&E's "Storage Wars," which follows four men who compete for the contents of units auctioned off by storage companies when renters default. "Well, every time I buy a storage locker, I've got that feeling."

Audiences are hooked too. The debut season of "Storage Wars" has averaged 2.3 million viewers. A&E has rushed a second season into production to broadcast in the spring. That's also when the second season of "Auction Hunters," Spike's rival show about the storage salvage trade, begins its run.

Pawn shop series such as truTV's "Hardcore Pawn" and the History Channel's "Pawn Stars" are also thriving. The latter is the History Channel's highest-rated show, with some episodes of the second season, which ended last May, reaching 5 million viewers. History's other winner is "American Pickers," a series that follows two men as they travel back roads, sifting through piles of junk stowed in garages and barns. At its peak, "Pickers'" second season also topped 5 million last summer.
Variants on these proven templates crowd the TV schedules these days, from Discovery's "Auction Kings" to TLC's "Auctioneers" and Syfy's "Hollywood Treasure." It's virtually a new television genre, a hybrid of infotainment and workplace-based reality TV, with a third element of wheeling-and-dealing suspense added for extra entertainment value.

In contrast with the genteel "Antiques Roadshow," where people who've brought in family heirlooms do their best to conceal their excitement when the price estimate is announced, these new programs are unabashedly cash-oriented.

They are also ultracompetitive and macho. The publicity blurb for "Auction Hunters" talks about "the cutthroat world of storage-unit auctions." Sequences in "Storage Wars" are soundtracked by the testosterone-pumping blues-rock of songs such as George Thorogood's "Bad to the Bone." Many of the lead characters in these shows look more like bouncers than antiquarians.

A 300-pound hulk with a thick black beard and tattoos on his bald head, "Auction Hunters'" Ton Jones specializes in collectable weapons such as medieval daggers and armor. In one episode, the discovery of a samurai sword in a storage unit prompts a slow-motion shot of Jones testing the blade by slicing through a defenseless watermelon, its bright red guts splattering every which way. Later that episode, he risks serious injury, or worse, by trying out a Civil War-era muzzle-loaded rifle (antique firearms are worth much more if they can actually fire). The gun expert that Jones and partner Allen Haff have called in warns him, "If it blows up, no money — and no you."

Yet for all their swagger, the truth is that the stars of these shows are connoisseurs with a refined eye for both the aesthetic qualities and historical interest of the artifacts they handle. "Pawn Stars'" Rick Harrison is positively erudite, a real bookworm who has even tried to teach himself Latin. But because the physically imposing man talks tough when it comes to negotiating prices, Harrison comes across as a down-to-earth, red-blooded American.

Many of the workplace-oriented "docusoaps" and character-driven contests on television today involve interior decor, hair-styling, cuisine, fashion and real estate. But there's nothing metrosexual about these new "mantiquing" shows. "American Pickers'" Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz take a Pigpen-like delight in getting down and dirty. At one point, Wolfe points out, "This isn't mousse in my hair. We just haven't showered for five days."

He describes one densely congested junkyard as "a picker's jungle gym," while Fritz enthuses, "It's where we like to be, right in the dirt, the dust and the rust." The duo pull out gas signs and cash registers from the 1950s, food cans with the labels faded but intact, and toy cars from the 1930s (ideally still in their original boxes). Some of their finds are collectable rarities; others will sell to decorators as atmosphere-enhancing vintage tchotchkes; still others, such as motorcycles and automobiles, might be cannibalized for parts to fix up other vintage vehicles.



"The way I look at these shows is less in terms of 'antiques' and more as treasure hunting," says Nancy Dubuc, president of Lifetime Networks and the major figure behind History's rise to become cable TV's top nonfiction channel. "There's something really appealing about the victory of the deal, and maybe more importantly, the victory of a find. People want that authentic item, they want to be the one that discovered it. And they want the story to tell of how they discovered it, and what the real worth is."

Spike TV Executive President Sharon Levy says that when the idea of "Auction Hunters" was first presented to her, "My head didn't go to Grandma's antique shows, but 'Raiders of the Lost Ark.' Growing up, for me, old objects meant Indiana Jones running through the jungle, jumping into a plane and flying off with an artifact."

But because these series emphasize the gritty thrills of the hunt, they present a deceptively glamorous picture of the businesses in question. "Pawn Stars" deals entirely with people who bring in unusual and rare objects, rather than what makes up the bulk of a pawn shop's business: People trading in personal belongings for cash, to pay off debts or keep up with their bills. The traditional image of the pawnshop — a seedy place of desperate and humiliated customers and hard-hearted owners offering as miserly payment as possible — is nowhere to be seen.

Similarly, "Storage Wars" and "Auction Hunters" do not give a second of screen time to investigating the plight of the original storage unit renters who've forfeited their precious possessions. The circumstances that make people default on their lockers — losing their jobs or having to move to another town for work, illness or death — could easily make for moving human interest stories. But this massive sociological phenomenon — thousands of abandoned units are auctioned off every week in America — is clearly too downbeat for these shows to incorporate into their feel-good format.
"We felt that this part of the story wasn't really what we're after," says Levy.

Instead, the shows focus on the pumped-up excitement of deal-making and gambling. "With Ton and Allen, it's their money, so there's real stakes there," says Levy. "There's this almost Vegas flavor, putting a thousand bucks down on the roulette table. We're watching and we're wondering if that's going to work out for them. Not only do they have to be cutthroat and out-psych the other bidders, they have to have an amazing poker game. And that's perfect for us at Spike, because this kind of competitiveness and strategic thinking always resonates with male viewers."

Sometimes the payoffs are massive. For less than $30, Sheets once found a comic book collection that he sold for $130,000 and that is now worth millions. He says "Storage Wars" has triggered a "modern day gold rush. People are coming out of the woodwork to attend these auctions. The average guy that doesn't have a job can be sitting there eating his potato chips with his wife yelling at him, see our show on TV, and the next day go and do it."

When accounting for the success of these shows, the recession is often mentioned as a factor. "When you've got an economy that is in a downturn," argues Levy, "people start to look at different ways of making money."

Lifetime's Dubuc disagrees with the recession explanation. "At History, we know we sit atop one of the richest treasure troves of stories in all mankind. But how do you bring it to life, in a way that isn't just dates, facts and dead people? That doesn't work anymore. It's critical to stay true to the mission to have people talking about history and to make it a more relevant subject in people's lives. But in order to do that these days, you have to find a way to be a little water-cooler."


[directors' cut version]



"Antiques" and "adrenalin" don't seem like they belong in the same sentence. But a new breed of television show makes the finding and selling of vintage artifacts look like a life of adventure. Ranging from series set in pawn shops to others that peer into the hitherto obscure realm of storage-unit auctions, these hugely popular shows ditch the aura of tweedy refinement that surrounded precursor programs like PBS's Antiques Roadshow (based on a British import) and instead present antiquing as rugged, manly and all-American. 
It really is as exciting as it looks on the TV screen, according to Darrell Sheets, one of the stars of A&E's Storage Wars. The show follows four men who compete for the contents of units auctioned off by storage companies when the renters have defaulted on their payments. "You know that feeling you had when you were eleven, still believed in Santa,  it's Christmas eve and you're going to bed with really warm, fuzzy feeling? Your belly's rolling and you just can't wait to get up in the morning and open your presents?" Sheets pauses for effect. " Well every time I buy a storage locker I've got that feeling. There's unopened boxes  in front of me  and I just can't wait to see what's inside them. That's why this business is such an addiction."
Audiences are hooked too.  The debut season of Storage Wars, currently airing, has averaged  2.3 million viewers. A&E has rushed a second season into production, which is set to air in the spring. That's also when the second season of Auction Hunters, Spike's rival show about the storage salvage trade, begins its run. Pawn shop series like truTV's Hardcore Pawn and Pawn Stars are thriving too. The latter is the History Channel's highest rated show, with some episodes of the second season, which ended in May last year, reaching five million viewers.  History's other winner is American Pickers, which follows two men who travel the country's backroads and sift through piles of junk stowed in garages and barns.  At its peak, Pickers's second season also topped five million this summer, a major contribution to History's most successful ratings years ever.  
Variants on these proven templates crowd the TV schedules, from Discovery’s “Auction Kings”  to TLC's Auctioneers and Syfy's Hollywood Treasure. It's virtually a new television genre, a hybrid of infotainment and workplace-based reality TV, with a third element of wheeling-and-dealing suspense added for extra entertainment value.  Despite differences of location and occupation, the format and tone of these shows is very similar. The stars are seasoned veterans of their trade who either hunt down collectable items or are offered them by prospective sellers. These mostly consist of Americana dating from the first half of the 20th Century: toys, gadgets, furniture, vehicles, commercial signs, and assorted oddities, anything from a calf-roping machine to a vintage lie detector.  The educational aspect to the show comes in nugget form, when the stars chat briefly about the historical background to the artifacts and extra information pops up on the screen as text. Often they will summon a specialist expert to authenticate the item, provide an estimate of its value, and indicate whether further expense in the form of restoration work is required to maximize its resale price. The suspense aspect to these shows comes at the end with the literal pay-off:  how much the artifacts actually sold for, what the profit margin was.
In contrast with the genteel Antiques Roadshow, where people who've brought in family heirlooms  for valuation do their best to conceal their excitement when the price estimate is announced, these new programmes are unabashedly cash-oriented. They are also ultra-competitive and macho.  The publicity blurb for Auction Hunters talks about "the cutthroat world of storage-unit auctions." Sequences in Storage Wars are soundtracked by the testosterone-pumping blues-rock of  songs like George Thorogood's "Bad To The Bone". Many of the lead characters in these shows look more like bouncers than antiquarians.  A 300 pound hulk with a thick black beard and tattoos on his bald head, Auction Hunters's Ton Jones  specializes in collectable weapons such as Medieval daggers and armor.  In one episode, the discovery of a samurai sword in a storage unit prompts a slow-motion shot of Jones testing  the blade by slicing through a defenceless water melon, its bright red guts splattering every which way.  Later that episode, he risks serious injury, or worse, by trying out a Civil War-era muzzled-loaded rifle (antique firearms are worth much more if they can actually fire). The gun expert that Jones and partner Allen Haff have called in warns him, "if it blows up, no money--and no you."
Yet for all their bad-ass  swagger, the truth is that the stars of these shows are connoisseurs  with a refined eye for both the  aesthetic qualities and historical interest of the artifacts they handle. Pawn Stars's Rick Harrison is positively erudite, a real bookworm who has even tried to teach himself Latin. But because he talks tough when it comes to negotiating prices and physically resembles Michael Chiklis, the actor who played a ruthless cop in The Shield, Harrison comes across as a down-to-earth, red-blooded American.
Many of the workplace-oriented "docusoaps" and character-driven contests on television today involve interior d├ęcor, hair styling, cuisine, fashion, and real estate.  But there's nothing metrosexual  about the new "mantiquing" shows.   American Pickers's Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz take a Pigpen-like delight in getting down and dirty.  At one point,Wolfe points out "this isn't mousse in my hair, we just haven't showered for five days." He describes one densely congested junkyard as "a picker's jungle gym", while Fritz enthuses "it's where we like to be, right in the dirt, the dust and the rust".  The duo pull out gas signs and cash registers from the 1950s, food cans with the labels faded but intact, and toy cars from the 1930s (ideally still in the original box). Some of their finds are collectable rarities; others will sell to decorators as atmosphere-enhancing  vintage tsotchkes;  still others, like motorcycles and automobiles, might be in bad shape overall but can be cannibalized for parts to fix up other vintage vehicles.
"The way I look at these shows is less in terms of 'antiques' and more as treasure hunting," says Nancy Dubuc, president of Lifetime Networks and the major figure behind History'ss rise to become cable TV's top non-fiction channel.  "There's something really appealing about the victory of the deal, and  maybe more importantly, the victory of a find.  People want that authentic item, they want to be the one that discovered it. And they want the story to tell of how they discovered it, and what the real worth is."  Spike TV executive president Sharon Levy says that when the idea of Auction Hunters was first presented to her,"my head didn't go to grandma's antique shows, but  Raiders of the Lost Ark. Growing up, for me old objects meant Indiana Jones  running through the jungle, jumping into a plane and flying off with an artifact."
But because these shows emphasize the gritty thrills of the hunt, they present a deceptively glamorous picture of the businesses in question.  Pawn Stars deals entirely with people who bring in unusual and rare objects, rather than what makes up the bulk of a pawn shop's business: people trading in personal  belonging for cash in hand, to pay off debts or keep up with their bills.  The traditional image of the pawnshop--a  seedy place of desperate and humiliated customers and hard-hearted owners offering as miserly payment as possible--is nowhere to be seen.  Similarly Storage Wars and Auction Hunters do not give a second of screen-time to investigating the plight of the original renters of the storage units who've forfeited their precious possessions.  The circumstances that make people default on their locker rent--losing their jobs or having to move to another town for work, illness or death --could easily make for involving and moving human interest stories. But although it's a massive sociological phenomenon--thousands of abandoned units are  auctioned off every week in America--it's an aspect that's clearly too downbeat for these shows to incorporate into their feelgood format.  
"We felt that this part of the story wasn't really what we're after," says Levy. "We were interested in following  Ton and Allen's job and the truth is that they don't dwell on that. The only way that would happen organically in the show is if someone came looking for them to find their stuff.  But that never happens." For his part, Darrell Sheets insists that "falling on hard times" is only one of the reasons that some people default on their storage fees. "There's a million reasons why it happens.  Nine times out of ten, the people who are losing this stuff are just pure irresponsible. The storage facilities themselves are not getting a lot of credit, because they really go to the work for these people who are behind.  I've seen managers who've let it go twelve months, a year and a half. The storage place is trying to reclaim some money that they've lost on a rental agreement."  While Sheets says that "occasionally I'll come across one that touches my heart and I'll just give the stuff back, no questions asked," most of the time he's hard-headed.  "When I buy a locker and I open the door, it's basically just stuff . It's a business.""
Quick killings require quick wits. At the storage unit auctions,  prospective buyers are not allowed inside to inspect the contents: they have just five minutes to peer inside, using flashlights, and make an appraisal. "There's this CSI aspect to Auction Hunters that I really like," says Levy. Like the junk-sifting Wolfe and Fritz of American Pickers, the storage hunters have developed forensic skills: they can spot whether the feet of a covered-up object might belong to a potentially valuable musical instrument like a Hammond B3 organ.  They even pay attention to how things are wrapped. "One of the things Allen Haff told me was that if you see things wrapped up in the New York Times or the LA Times, it conveys the potential that the people who rented the unit were well-off," laughs Levy.
Another testosterone-aligned aspect of these shows is the element of gambling. "With Ton and Allen, it's their money, so there's real stakes there," says Levy. "There's this almost Vegas flavor, putting a thousand bucks down on the roulette table. We're watching and we're wondering if that's going to work out for them. Not only do they have to be cut-throat and out-psych the other bidders, they have to have an amazing poker game. And that's perfect for us at Spike, because this kind of competitiveness and strategic thinking always resonates with male viewers."
Sometimes the pay-offs are massive.  For an outlay of under thirty dollars, Sheets once found a comic book collection that he sold for 130 thousand dollars and is now worth millions. He claims that Storage Wars has triggered a "modern day gold rush. People are coming out of the woodwork to attend these auctions. The average guy that doesn't have a job can be sitting there eating his potato chips with his wife yelling at him, see our show on TV, and the next day go and do it.  It's opened up a whole new world to everybody."
When accounting for the success of these shows, the recession is often mentioned as a factor. "When you've got an economy that is in a downturn," argues Levy, "people start to look at different ways of making money" . Nancy Dubuc disagrees. "I don't buy the recession idea. If only it were that easy! When we were looking at the early footage of these shows, the sentiment in the room was that they very easy: well formatted, natural.  Our lives have gotten very complicated and there is a place for shows that are easy to digest.  At History, we know we sit atop one of the richest treasure troves of stories in all mankind. But how do you bring it to life, in a way that isn't just dates, facts and dead people.  That doesn't work anymore.  It's critical to stay true to the mission to have people talking about history and to make it a more relevant subject in people's lives. But in order to do that these days you have to find a way to be a little water-cooler."

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