If it seems like there's only garbage on TV lately, there's a good reason. "Trash" has become cable television's treasure. In April the History Channel had its highest ratings ever, bolstered by a runaway hit, now among the top 10 shows on cable.
"American Pickers" is about two guys crisscrossing the Midwest's back roads, picking through dusty old barns and garages for antiques and collectibles.
"A picker is someone who finds good stuff among the rust," Fritz says. "It was invented a long time ago when a picker was thought of the low guy, the dumpster driver, the trash digger. Now it's a term that has been brought up."
"American Pickers" debuted in January, and airs Monday nights on the History Channel along with another huge hit featuring forgotten treasures. "Pawn Stars" is based on the owners of a Las Vegas hock shop, who haggle and deal with customers hoping to make a buck in sin city.
"American Pickers" averaged 3.8 million total viewers in its first season of ten episodes. Not bad for an idea Wolfe says he tried to pitch for four years, shooting homemade episodes with Fritz using a small video camera. When he showed his "pilots" to executives at History, Wolfe says they knew they had a hit. Now "picking" has turned Wolfe and Fritz, a couple of middle-aged, blue collar antiques collectors from Iowa into an overnight sensation.
When "Nightline" caught up with the "pickers" during a recent trip to St. Louis, they were recognized everywhere, even in the lobby of the Holiday Inn Express, where the duo crashed for the night.
"I came up here for breakfast and heard Mike's voice," says Jeff Fraiser of Michigan, an excited fan who happened to be staying in the same hotel. "I said oh man, can I get your autograph? I mean I had tears in my eyes!"
"Nightline" went along as Wolfe and Fritz went picking in an old St. Louis steel mill, shooting an episode for the second season of the show. Their camera crew followed as the pickers rummaged through the property, offering the owners money for anything they thought could be resold to antiques dealers and collectors for a profit.
One of the first items that caught Wolfe's eye: a dusty old workbench lamp clamped to some machinery. Wolfe offers the mill owners $50, and they gladly accept. Wolfe also scoops up some old porcelain sign letters for $5 each. He says antique dealers and decorators will pay top dollar for this stuff.
"What's driving the collectors market is what's hot in 'O Magazine.' What's hot in Restoration Hardware. What's hot in Pottery Barn. What's hot in West Elm," Wolfe says. "All that stuff, as pickers, we take in."
When the picking is done, the antiques are brought to Wolfe's shop, Antique Archaeology, in tiny Le Claire, Iowa. There the guys have been swamped with tips from viewers on where to find hidden treasures. Their receptionist Danielle Colby-Cushman says they've received over 8,000 e-mails with leads.
Colby-Cushman, a tattooed mother of three has become a celebrity in her own right thanks to the show, where she's seen dispatching the pickers, while also keeping them in line.
Colby-Cushman says the success of "Pickers" is thanks in part to the dynamic personalities of Wolfe and Fritz, and nostalgia for simpler times.