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Cable viewers can’t seem to get enough of
trashy reality TV — not the figurative garbage that critics decry,
but shows that quite literally focus on stuff discarded by
people, collected by antiques experts and turned into ratings
gold for cable networks.

Hidden-treasure shows like History’s Pawn Stars, truTV’s
Hardcore Pawn, TLC’s Auctioneers and Pawn Queens and Spike
TV’s AuctionHunters have made the made the art of rummaging
through old, dusty boxes in attics and storage units sexy and
inherently watchable for cable viewers — so much so that cable networks have aired or are
planning to air no less than a dozen shows in the genre this year.

And viewers are tuning in at record levels. Nearly one-sixth of the top 50 most-watched
reality shows thus far in 2011 consists of shows of the hidden-treasure type, led by History’s
Pawn Stars, cable’s granddaddy of the genre. The series, about an unorthodox family
that runs a Las Vegas pawn shop, is History’s most-watched series ever and is the secondmost-
viewed reality series of 2011, behind MTV’s Jersey Shore.

Two June 13 episodes of Pawn Stars drew 7.4 million viewers, easily beating such scripted
series as TNT’s Falling Skies and USA Network’s Covert Affairs.

Spike TV’s Auction Hunters — which focuses on prospectors Clinton “Ton” Jones and
Allen Haff as they aggressively look to win auctions, acquire treasure and sell it for profit
— is the channel’s most-watched series of 2011, with 1.6 million viewers.

A&E Network’s Storage
, in which the show’s
stars blindly bid aggressively
against one another for
abandoned storage units they
havem’t inspected — and
which may or may not yield
valuables — drew a network
record 5.1 million viewers to its
July 20 season-two premiere.
The show averaged 1.6 million
viewers in its first season,
a network high for the year.

Given today’s tough economic environment, cable network executives say the shows’
mix of entrepreneurialism, nostalgia and a get-rich-quick element based on items that can
be found in their own garages and dens or their neighbor’s attics are driving the genre’s
ratings explosion.

“It’s like when you drive past a garage sale, you can’t help but slow down a little because
you think that there may be something on that lawn that will catch your eye,” Sharon Levy,
Spike TV’s executive vice president of original series and animation, said. “These shows
are kind of that phenomenon but for television.”

When History debuted the then-unknown Pawn Stars in 2009, the nearest competitor
in the antiques TV genre at
the time was Antiques Roadshow,
the long-running PBS
series. But Pawn Stars, and
several other genre shows
that currently dot the cable-
television landscape,
sprung up during a deep
economic recession, when
many families sought to
generate extra income in
the midst of near doubledigit
unemployment numbers.
That helped to boost both awareness of and interest
in the genre.

“I think people in this
economy like to know that
if they lost their job, they
could they go into their
backyard or garage, wipe
the dust off some stuff and
find out if they have a piece
of gold just sitting there that
they didn’t realize,” Brent Montgomery, president of
reality show production
company Leftfield Pictures, which produces Pawn Stars,

Spike’s Levy added: “The minute that the economy took
a downturn, treasure-hunting in general became something
that people were not only interested in learning
about, but were actively doing on their own. These shows
that taught you more information about history and value
of items became a vastly appealing genre.”


David McKillop, executive vice president of programming
for A&E Networks, said that shows like History’s Pawn
, AmericanRestoration and American Pickers — as well
as A&E’s Storage Wars — tap into a feeling of American ingenuity,
innovation and entrepreneurialism that’s otherwise
lacking from other reality shows on the cable dial.

“I think the other piece is the fact it plays up to the idea
of working for yourself
and self-made entrepreneurialism
individualism which
are strong American
values, and the
fact that all of these
guys are self-made
and self-educated,”
he said. “I think it’s
the positive aspects
of where the country
is and the fact that
we’re going back to rediscover
that probably
the best thing to do is
to work for yourself
… if you work hard,
you’re smart, competitive
and you persevere
you’re you can make it in this
world. What people are responding
to is the positive aspect of the American

Syfy president of original programming
Mark Stern said that
shows like Hollywood Treasure
which follows a group of antique experts
looking for memorabilia from
Hollywood blockbusters and sci-fi
films — can captivate viewers with
the nostalgia and history behind
the rare and interesting artifacts.

“The other factor is the get-richquick/
hit-the-jackpot factor of, ‘I
might have something in my house
that’s suddenly worth a ton of money
that’s going to help me get out of
debt or out from under my bills,’ ” he
said.“I think both of those elements
are very powerful.”

The latest twist on the genre is the
high-stakes betting and competitive
action found in such shows as
Spike’s Action Hunters and A&E’s
Storage Wars. McKillop even likened
Storage Wars to a game show.
The network has already announced
a spinoff of Storage Wars that will focus
on storage-unit raiders in Dallas.

“There’s a sense of gambling in
the show, so at the simplest level
they are very entertaining, fun and informative game
shows,” he said.

Spike’s Levy said aggressive action surrounding the bidding
process for storage unit has endeared Auction Hunters
to its target audience of 18-to-49-year-old men.

“The competition adds to
the insight and understanding
behind winning something
like that,” Levy said.
“For years and years, poker
shows were the rage, and I
think a lot of that was about
strategy and one upsmanship,
and I think that that’s
what our show has because
it’s intrinsic to that world.”


With the incredible ratings
success of Pawn Stars, it’s
not surprising that a number
of similarly themed shows
have populated cable’s lineups
over the past 18 months.
Leftfield Pictures itself has
several others in the category, including History’s American

Leftfield’s Montgomery said the genre is no longer a niche
play — it’s become more general and inclusive, like the food
category, which can encompass competition, cooking and
reality programming.

“It’s nice to see that it’ll be around to stay for a while and
there’s a lot of ways to get into the hidden-treasure space
from some of the other shows,” Montgomery said.

Spike’s Levy added that the strongest shows within the
genre would eventually wade through the clutter and collect
upon the category’s popularity.

“There will be a saturation point, but I think if people keep
looking at interesting ways of taking what’s working and
twisting it and not being derivative, they can be successful,”
she said. “But you have to put up the best programming.”

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.