published as TV's macho hunters and gatherers
Los Angeles Times, January 23 2011
by Simon Reynolds
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.
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.
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.
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."
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]