TV Continues To Cash In On Pawn Show Popularity

Originally published on July 14, 2011 1:41 pm

What happens when you cross CBS's The Price is Right with PBS's Antiques Roadshow?

You get NBC's It's Worth What? a game show in which contestants are asked to guess the value of objects found anywhere from your neighbor's attic to international museums.

It's Worth What? is the latest in more than a dozen shows that deal with antiques or junk (depending on how you spin it). It also represents the beginning of a cable craze crossing over to broadcast — and the trend isn't over yet.

Fox's Buried Treasure is set to debut in August, when it will join an already-robust list of TV antique shows, including American Pickers, Auction Hunters, Auctioneers, Auction Kings, Auction Packed, Cash & Cari and What the Sell. (Yikes, someone call the pun police.)

Still, antiques aren't a new attraction on TV. PBS first introduced Antiques Roadshow back in 1997, but that never caused this much of a craze.

To some degree, you can blame the current hype on Pawn Stars, the Las Vegas pawnshop reality show that became a huge hit for the History Channel a few years back. Just like a vintage Rolex, Pawn Stars inspired knockoffs, like truTV's Hardcore Pawn -- perhaps the worst pun yet.

Until the ratings say otherwise, copycat shows will keep turning up. And very few entries in this antique category fail.

The inexhaustible supply must be striking a deep chord among viewers, especially as the country struggles through recession. Maybe it shouldn't come as a surprise that what really resonates during tough times are images of average Americans dusting off items in the forgotten corners of their homes and discovering they've got hidden value.

But there's a cruel irony at play here. The types of businesses depicted in these programs traffic in people's financial problems, not prosperity. Take pawnshops, for instance. On TV they may look like fun places to trade in undiscovered treasure, but have you been in one of these stores lately? During a recession they're filled with debtors selling more mundane objects. And as for shows like Storage Wars and Storage Hunters, many of those lockers become open for raiding only after some poor soul has been forced to default on his or her personal belongings.

These shows project a fantasy on the back of a nightmare, the kind of hardships that are too depressing for reality TV. But transforming trash into cash — now that's an alchemy well-suited to this economy.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

Commentator Andrew Wallenstein tells us why TV viewers are so interested in other people's stuff and how much that stuff is worth.

ANDREW WALLENSTEIN: Think of "It's Worth What?" as "The Price is Right" crossed with "Antiques Roadshow."

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "IT'S WORTH WHAT?")

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

CEDRIC THE ENTERTAINER: Now I've got a couple of cool things to show you. All you have to do is tell me what's worth more.

WALLENSTEIN: On this game show, host Cedric the Entertainer has contestants guess the value of objects found anywhere from your neighbor's attic to international museums.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "IT'S WORTH WHAT?")

U: We are going with the gloves.

THE ENTERTAINER: Are you sure?

U: We are sure.

WALLENSTEIN: "It's Worth What?" represents a cable craze crossing over to broadcast, and the trend isn't over yet. Another show, "Buried Treasure," is coming to Fox in August. They join "American Pickers," "Auction Hunters," "Auctioneers," "Auction Kings," "Auction Packed," "Cash and Cari," and "What the Sell." My God, someone call the pun police.

NORRIS: The Antiques Roadshow started on PBS in 1997.]

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "ANTIQUES ROADSHOW")

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WALLENSTEIN: But that's not the show causing this craze.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "PAWN STARS")

U: On this episode of "Pawn Stars."

U: It's a 1946 jukebox.

WALLENSTEIN: To some degree, blame it on "Pawn Stars," which became a huge hit for History Channel a few years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "PAWN STARS")

U: I see government war bonds all the time, but I've never had one from the Revolutionary War.

WALLENSTEIN: And just like a vintage Rolex, it's inspired knockoffs.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "HARDCORE PAWN")

U: In the heart of Detroit's Eight Mile lies the city's biggest and baddest pawn shop.

WALLENSTEIN: Why else do you think the channel truTV would come up with a show named...

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "HARDCORE PAWN")

U: "Hardcore Pawn."

WALLENSTEIN: Yup, the worst pun yet, "Hardcore Pawn." Copycat shows keep coming until the ratings say otherwise. But the weird thing is very few entries in this antique category fail. The inexhaustible supply here must be striking a deep chord among viewers.

WALLENSTEIN: These shows project a fantasy on the back of a nightmare, the kind of hardships that are too depressing for reality TV. But transforming trash into cash, now that's an alchemy well-suited to this economy.

NORRIS: Commentator Andrew Wallenstein is an editor at Variety. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.