The “American Pickers” show based on the exploits of two eastern Iowans is now filming for its sixth season, surpassing the five years it took to convince a network to put it on the air. Mike Wolfe of LeClaire came up with the idea for the show about the “picking” he does with partner Frank Fritz of Davenport.
He spent five years trying to convince TV executives the show would work. The History Network first turned the show down, but Wolfe says a change in leadership at the network cleared the way for the first season. “I always saw it on History and they got a new president — her name is Nancy Dubuque and now she is president of A&E, Lifetime, Bio and History — they’ve made her president of it all. She’s an incredible woman who understands that you can deliver history in a different way,” Wolfe says.
He says the success of another show also helped them find a place on the network. “They had already had a show on the air called “Pawn Stars,” and that show was doing really well and they were halfway through their first season. So, they were looking for something that could go right next to that,” Wolfe says. “So, when they saw our reel that I had shot, they were like ‘this is it.’ It was the first time that History had ever bought a show without a pilot. They said, ‘give us ten episodes’.”
Wolfe says putting together the first season was an adventure when the crew showed up and asked him what they were going to do. Wolfe says he didn’t know where he was going to go, because he usually just got up and went out and started picking. That worried the crew as they had a budget to stick to in filming the show. “That’s why a lot of it was shot in Iowa, because I had some contacts and maybe places I’d been before or pickers that I’d know that ere kind of helping us out too,” Wolfe explains.
The first season got done and History was hoping to get 1.5 million viewers. Wolfe says they got 3.2 million, then increased to 4.2 million, then 5.2 million, all the way up to 6.2 million viewers. He calls the appeal something like a Flinstone vitamin — saying it looks good — but you are also getting some benefit out of it too in learning about the history of the items they buy.
And viewers can relate to finding something they like and trying to buy it from someone else. “We had artifactual television before my show, it was called the “Road Show.” It was artifactual television, you were looking at things and then there was a value,” Wolfe says. “We introduced artifactual-transactional television. It’s like, okay that’s amazing, but I want to buy it. So, that’s I think why it resonated with a lot of people. They’re just like ‘wow, I go to flea markets, I go to estate sales, I do all that.'”
Many imitators sprung up on the heels of “American Pickers” success, but the show continues to draw viewers. Wolfe believes the other shows focused too much on the price of the items. “We can do a show — and we’ve done it in the past — where I’ve bought something that’s 200 dollars and you get 5 million viewers out of it. Because you are really focusing on the person, the relationship they have and the discovery of it. That’s what it’s about, it’s not really about the value of it,” Wolfe says. “In fact, if you talk to people who watch our show — they don’t really remember the items we buy too much, but they remember the people.”
He says 25 years of picking gave him the experience to talk with people and know how to negotiate with them. While he says other shows tried to fit people into the concept. “They were coming up with ideas at networks and then they were going out and casting them. So, a lot of the people who were being casted weren’t even really doing that for a living. I think our show people can really see the passion and they understand from watching it that it’s something we do,” according to Wolfe.
And he says they have three people on the show that are opposites. Wolfe says he’s the opposite of Frank Fritz, who he has been friends with since eighth grade, and they both are different than Danielle Colby. Colby runs the shop while they are out on the road. Wolfe says once he got busy he had to hire someone to make the calls to find places to pick, and he hired Danielle. He says the crew wasn’t going to film her as first because she didn’t have a contract, but then they did and she became part of the show.
Wolfe made his comments during a recent stop at the State Historical Center in Des Moines. He was promoting the new lottery ticket that features him and the show and is intended to help promote the state.
Audio: Dar Danielson and Mike Wolfe. 5:15