June 3, 2010 -- 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!"
Pickers Rummage to Find Hidden Treasures
"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.
"We've seen the housewives, the Paris Hiltons, which is all fine and great to watch," Colby-Cushman says, "but I think people are craving something more organic and more real."
The picker's treasure hunt often takes them off the beaten path, and sometimes under it. In Pennsylvania they discovered "mole man," a collector who stacks up antiques in his 26-room underground lair.
Wolfe and Fritz say the experience was their most dangerous yet, as they climbed through narrow tunnels and a maze built with 1,700 old doors. Wolfe says it took some convincing to get their camera crew to go with them.
"I was like, hey man, you've been hired to follow us," Wolfe says. "Let's rock this out, let's get in the hole, we're going to find something killer down here."
'Pickers': Swindlers or Smart Shoppers?
Not everyone is sold on American Pickers. The broadcast has polarized the antiques community, with critics accusing the pickers of taking advantage of elderly collectors, low-balling them for their keepsakes. Several blogs have been trashing the pickers.
"I think this is a sad show of two con men roaming around and exploiting people," one wrote.
"American Pickers are two greedy Americans bent on screwing older people out of their treasures," wrote another.
"The essence of those blogs is that we are searching out old people," Wolfe says.
"Like I'm looking for some old decrepit dude to buy something from. No, we're not looking for old people, we're looking for old items. So when we buy something from a person like that, and we pay them $200 and we sell it for $500, is that our profit margin? No, I mean we're in business here."
Wolfe and Fritz also say their show is bringing new attention to collecting, at a time when antique shops across the country are closing their doors in a tough economy.
"The industry is hurting so bad, and it makes me laugh that some in the industry are talking smack on us," Wolfe says, "Look at me dude, I'm on ABC's "Nightline" and we're talking about collectibles, we are talking about antiques, we're talking about feeding the fire."
'Pickers' See Dollar Signs
Back at the steel mill in St. Louis, they don't feel ripped off, they're star-struck. Owners Stan and Sam Shapiro say they're happy with what the Pickers paid for their junk and are excited at the chance to hang out with two of TV's biggest stars.
At Wolfe's shop in Iowa, they don't see junk, they see dollar signs, as they put prices on the items bought in St. Louis. The old workbench lamp picked for $50 will be sold for $125. And what about those porcelain sign letters? Wolfe says they'll ask $50 apiece in his shop.
"In New York city, these are a couple of hundred bucks each!" he says.
It's a dirty job, but Wolfe and Fritz are doing it -- creating a new TV sensation with the help of some very old stuff.
Season two of American Pickers debuts on Monday, June 7 on History at 9 p.m. ET.