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From 'Storage Wars' to 'Pawn Stars,' some reality shows ignore the reality behind the stories

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. 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.

Nate Berkus' surprise design shocks a local homeowner.

Until she moved into her 1,400-square-foot Valrico home in April, 29-year-old Sarah Hoke had lived only in apartments and a mobile home. So she needed some serious help figuring how to decorate what would become the family dining room.

But Hoke had no idea that help would come from superstar interior designer Nate Berkus, who traveled to the Tampa Bay area and surprised her with a makeover the day after Halloween for his syndicated daytime series, The Nate Berkus Show (the episode airs at 10 a.m. today on WFTS-Ch. 28).

Berkus, best known as talk queen Oprah Winfrey's designer of choice, provided a new dining room table, chairs, a refinished glass coffee table, couch, drapes, leather-studded wing chair and a buffet to display china she had kept in storage for seven years. The show even paid the taxes Hoke would incur from accepting such gifts.

"They opened my garage and Nate Berkus was there . . . I kinda freaked out," said Hoke, a mother of two kids under 6 who works as a pharmacy technician at a Publix grocery. "I kinda blacked out, because I was so excited."

Her husband, Sean, works two jobs — one at an electronics firm and another at Publix — leaving little time to shop for furniture and tight financial resources. So the gift from Berkus' show left her feeling "like I won the lottery."

But with two young children the greatest challenge remains: how to keep her redesigned dining room looking the way Berkus left it.

"I have a baby gate; that room is off-limits (except for special meals)," said Hoke, laughing. "We can have nice meals in the living room, too."

From 'Storage Wars' to 'Pawn Stars,' some reality shows ignore the reality behind the stories 11/20/11 [Last modified: Sunday, November 20, 2011 8:53pm]

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