Vulture TV: How Pawn Stars, Storage Wars and other shows benefit from economic hard times
It struck me while I was watching an episode of A&E's Storage Wars, centered on a moment when bidder Darrell Sheets turned a questionable purchase into a gold mine.
It felt as if I was watching the birth of a new kind of television. Let's call it: Vulture TV.
Consider the premise of Storage Wars (10 p.m. Tuesdays on A&E): When a renter fails to make payments on a storage unit, the contents can be auctioned. And A&E has built a surprisingly popular series around an eccentric crew of people who resell items bought at these auctions, which require bidding on units with no opportunity to touch or rifle through the contents.
Watching the show, though, I always wondered: Where are the people who used to own this stuff?
Sheets, who calls himself "the Gambler," carps continually about finding items with the "wow factor." But in one episode, while trying to drive up the price of one unit for his competitors, he got stuck buying it for $400, only to discover a cache of rare coins worth more than $4,000.
The question unasked by anyone in the episode: Who would willingly allow their prize coin collection to wind up at auction for want of a storage unit rental fee?
In these tough economic times, one step on the cycle of poverty for some people is to place items in storage after eviction, only to find they can't make payments on the rental unit, either.
A 60 Minutes story in March highlighted a Florida family of five who lost all their valuables to such an auction. They had placed nearly everything they owned into storage after being evicted from their home when both parents were laid off.
These are the stories of pain behind lighthearted series such as Storage Wars, where knuckleheaded bidders toss around hundreds of dollars for storage units with no mention of how they may have come to auction.
A friend once called it the aptly named Vulture TV, for shows that feed on the negative impact of the country's recession without really acknowledging it. And there's lots of such stuff around, from the History Channel's Pawn Stars and truTV's Operation Repo to the Jennifer Lopez-produced South Beach Tow and Spike TV's Auction Hunters.
In an episode of Pawn Stars airing at 10 p.m. next Monday, the guys from the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas consider buying a small fighter jet originally sold off after the fall of the Soviet Union. The seller, called only Tex, said he was selling because "A guy I know owes me about $200,000. Turns out, he couldn't come up with the cash."
Forget about buying this 25-year-old jet. The more interesting show would be how Tex's buddy wound up owing him $200,000, and where that guy found a plane to pay off the debt. (Let's call it The Hangover III: Top Gun in Siberia.)
At risk of entering broken-record land, this is what I hate most about so-called reality TV, a heavily manipulated product that uses shards of real life to fuel highly controlled stories.
Because the background stories of folks who lose storage units filled with valuables or struggle to pay their car loans or need quick cash at a pawn shop aren't usually heartwarming and entertaining, they simply are ignored.
So the next time you're tempted to cheer "the Gambler" when he scores a great find, consider: Someone else had to lose something of value just so this guy could play a winner on TV.