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“American Pickers”: The Inside Story of the History Channel’s Surprise Hit - Page 2 PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Media
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Wednesday, 17 March 2010 06:12

Picking on Pickers

Frank FritzAmerican Pickers has drawn its share of criticism. Comments on one blog dubbed the show Pricks Rob Hicks and American Predators, based largely on the debut episode in which a saddle was "picked" for $75 and was later appraised at $5,000.

Critics accuse the pickers on preying on older people.

Fritz and Colby-Cushman are dismissive of the criticism. Fritz says the complaints come from "armchair quarterbacks," "naysayers," and "haters," and said that he doesn't pay attention to them.

"You cannot please everybody," Colby-Cushman said. "Jesus, they killed Martin Luther King. And Mike's not Martin Luther King."

But Wolfe seems to take it more personally. "Sometimes I wonder if people are watching the same show that we made," he said.

Much of the criticism ignores the realities of the business, Wolfe said.

For one thing, he said, the pair isn't targeting senior citizens; they are simply more likely to own the objects that Fritz and Wolfe want. "I'm not looking for someone in their 80s; I'm looking for old stuff," Wolfe said. "When you drive down these roads, that's who has the stuff -- older people."

More importantly, an appraisal doesn't necessarily reflect a realistic sale price. Wolfe said his aim is to turn items around quickly, not to earn top dollar.

"When you get into this business, you need to sell," Fritz said. "Being able to flip your stuff is very, very important. I probably keep too much. ... We all want to keep stuff. ... [But] if you get stuff and flip it quick, you don't get an emotional attachment with it."

That saddle might be worth $5,000 if it's at an auction with multiple bidders trying to get it, Wolfe said. But nobody bit with a starting bid of $199 on eBay. Wolfe said he ended up selling it for $175. "If I can't make 100 bucks on something ... then I need to get out of the business," he said.

A 1948 Rock-Ola jukebox bought on Pickers was estimated on the show to be worth $5,000. "I sold it for $1,900." Wolfe said. "I paid $1,300; I drove to Ohio to get it.

"The only thing that's ever gotten us in trouble on the show is these appraisals," he added. "The appraisals are way off-chart. ... We are not going to be guinea pigs to appraisals any more."

Generally speaking, Wolfe and Fritz said, they pay half of what they think they can sell an item for. But even for that to work, they have to sell a lot of items because of their costs.

"I've got a mortgage," Wolfe said. "I've got all this overhead" -- including travel, lodging, food, storefront, and employee costs.

There are times, of course, when the pickers sell for far more than they expected. Wolfe said he bought a moving-company sign for $75, thinking he could only get $200 for it because it was warped and plastic, and because subject matter dictates the sale prices for signs. "When I put it on eBay, it went for $1,200," he said.

That speaks to the nature of the business. The stars of American Pickers stress that they aren't antique experts. ("We're professionals at finding things," Fritz said.) They have areas of expertise, but outside of those, it's a guessing game. When they bought the jukebox on the show, Wolfe said: "1,300 bucks for us is a lot of money to gamble."

Both Wolfe and Fritz know their motorcycles; Wolfe knows bikes and signs; and Fritz is a toy collector. Outside of those areas, Colby-Cushman said, "all he can do is guess at what it's going to sell for. That is where the trouble lies."

And she said viewers often don't get the full story. "I can tell you of several situations where Mike has found out that something he has picked for $20 is worth way more than he thought, and he's gone back and given more money to the person he's picked from," she said. "It happens more often than you think."

And, she added, "we have to eat it on so many items. ... That stuff is just what happens."

"You need to make sure you make more right decisions than wrong ones," Fritz said.

Still, there's an element of the show that's unsavory because the sellers are often at an information disadvantage. In the History-channel forums, one user wrote that "the pickers know what they are buying, and how much it's worth, but keep it secretive to those who they are buying it from. That's taking advantage."

But the stars of the show emphasized that they're dealing with willing buyers, and noted that they get shut down a lot. Wolfe said that if he visits 20 farms in a day, he might come away empty-handed 15 times.

"A lot of people turn us away," Fritz said. "We've been turned away hundreds of times."

But American Pickers doesn't emphasize that. "Would you watch a fishing show if the guy never caught anything?" Wolfe said.

And it's wise to keep in mind the perspective offered by another History-channel forum poster: "Given all the people that actually prey on the elderly, the energy spent griping about this show on this board kind of makes me ill."

The Future

Frank Fritz and Mike WolfeWolfe said it was only a matter of time before somebody made a show like American Pickers. He was just first. "I took being a picker and put it in a bottle and stuck a label on it," he said.

He doesn't make any effort to hide his glee at American Pickers' success, and it's clear that he's interested in the business end of television. "We own the frickin' airwaves on Monday night," Wolfe said, noting 5 million viewers for recent episodes of Pawn Stars and nearly 3.9 million for the March 1 Pickers. "That's insane numbers for cable."

He noted that his show's debut drew 3.1 million people, and he added that History hoped for 1.5 million "There was only one show ever that beat us on a premiere, and that was Ice Road Truckers in 2007, and they only got 3.2. So they barely beat us." (Ice Road Truckers was History's best premiere, not cable's. The debut of The Closer, for instance, drew more than 7 million viewers.)

Wolfe wouldn't discuss the show's budget or how much he's being paid, but he said that the first season isn't about money; to a television network, the advertising revenue is theoretical until the show airs. "You're nobody; the show is nothing ... ," he said.

The second season is bringing with it more money for its three stars, but he said the real money lies in endorsements -- which he said wouldn't even be realistic until a third season.

"We're all making a little bit more money," he said of the second season. "Are we going to retire anytime soon? No."

The success has its own burdens. Colby-Cushman said she's now getting 1,200 e-mail messages a day through the e-mail address on Wolfe's Web site. "We're just learning how to deal with something that has exploded," she said. "We were not ready at all for it to be as big as it is. We thought it would be a fun little show."

Fritz said he's not surprised by the show's success. He said he thinks a lot of viewers get to have adventures through him and Wolfe: "A lot of people would love to be pickers, would love to be junkers. But they got five kids, they got a wife, they got this, they got that. They can't physically or financially do it." He and Wolfe, he added, aren't married and don't have children: "Not too many people are able to do this job later in life like we are."

Wolfe said he hopes the show inspires young people to do what he's done since he was a kid: pick. "It takes that one person to plant that seed," he said. "That's what some old guy did with me. I would walk down the alley and this old guy had a bunch of stuff in his garage and he would sit and talk with me for hours. And I remember that he gave me a cigar box one time, and that was huge. ... I remember that guy."

Still, the degree of success has been a surprise. "Obviously we didn't know how big it was going to be," Fritz said. "We're very fortunate to have what we have going, and we're going to keep riding this bus as long as it keeps running. The main thing is we're hoping to spark some interest in the antique trade," especially among young people. "I am embracing this with the most pleasure I can. I'm very, very happy that mother is still alive to be able to see my 15 minutes of fame."

That's the diplomatic, gracious way to look at the success of American Pickers. And Fritz sounded realistic about the long-term prospects of the show. Although PBS' Antiques Roadshow has been around in the United States since 1997 -- the British version started in 1979 -- it's likely the exception. "Reality shows are good for three or four years," he said.

But Wolfe isn't above talking some smack, saying that his show is responsible for an impending glut of shows focused on buying and selling. "You won't believe all the stuff all the networks are working on now," he said. "Now that us and Pawn Stars are spanking the shit out of everybody ... it's all going to come at you like a fucking tsunami now. ... Give it about a year."

New episodes of American Pickers air Mondays at 8 p.m. on History. The first season concludes its run on March 29.

For more information on American Pickers, visit History.com/shows/american-pickers. Antique Archeology's Web site is AntiqueArcheology.com; Frank Fritz's Web site is FrankFritzFinds.com.


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