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Balls of Steel™: 'American Pickers' Road to TV with Show Creator Mike Wolfe, Part 2

American Pickers Mike Wolfe graciously shared the long road from creating the show’s concept to selling it to The History Channel.

In last week’s column, Balls of Steel: American Pickers Road to TV with Show Creator Mike Wolfe, Part 1, Mike graciously shared the long road from creating the show’s concept to selling it to The History Channel.

Once a show has found a home, it’s all smooth sailing… or is it?

In Part 2, Mike Wolfe talks candidly about what it was actually like to see his show come to life. Rewind to the show’s sale. Mike was informed the cameras would be at his shop in Iowa and to be ready for the fun to begin.

How does one prepare for the onslaught of a film crew?


“I had just acquired the building a month before. So when they said we sold the show, I knew this building would be the set. I wasn’t creating a retail shop anymore; I was creating a TV set. I knew what I wanted it to look like. I wanted the car in front. I wanted something cool, not just a sign. A big target logo on the front of the building. So Danielle painted everything. If you watch the show early on, you’ll see the desk… all of that was orchestrated by me.”

Mike, Frank Fritz and Danielle Colby-Cushman are the foundation of the show. While the chemistry between Mike and Frank, who have known each other since 8th grade, is what sealed the deal with History, tattoo chick Danielle Colby-Cushman was not part of the original pitch.

“I had known Danielle for 15 years. She had just closed her store in LeClaire, and I approached her and said History bought the show, and I want her to be on it. I needed her to do the research of where we’re going. What you see Danielle doing on the show, that’s what I used to do. I would research my trips, have five or six places I would go, then I would do freestyling, showing up in spots and looking for stuff. I hired her. They (History Channel) came Sept 8th, they’re filming me and Frank, and asked who Danielle is. They said, ‘We’re not filming her… we have no contract with her… History just wants you and Frank.’ I explained she is the one telling us where to go, and I think it would benefit all of us if they filmed her. They said no.”

Danielle Colby-Cushman - Photo Courtesy of The History Channel

Danielle Colby-Cushman - Photo Courtesy of The History Channel

If you read Part 1, you know Mike does not give up on something he wants. Securing Danielle on his team was his next mission. He ignored their requests and kept her on set.

“After the crew saw us for about a week in the shop, and what we were doing, they started filming her on their iPhones and sent the footage to History and then decided to bring her into the show.”

As for the value Danielle brings, Mike credits her role as the foundation of the show format.

“The format was underneath my nose, but I hadn’t even see it until we started making the show. The key was coming up with someone else to do the research that I was doing and that became the format. The structure is based on her… where she sends us, the struggle of what’s going on back at the shop, and her calling to say she just got something appraised. It brings more storyline into it. It brings another relationship. It brings a girl into it. History viewership is 60% male. The first thing I told her was I wanted her to do it because I want to make a show about antiques that no one has ever seen before, and you look like you have nothing to do with antiques. You’re a smart ass, you’re a girl, and we need a girl.”

Mike’s gut instinct was right, and the ratings proved it.

“History was hoping we’d get a 1.5. As weeks went on, we got 3.2, 4.2, 5.2, 6.2… all of a sudden, between us and ‘Pawn Stars’, we were pulling 12 to 13 million viewers every Monday night, which is insane for a cable network.”

After five years of pitching his show, Mike finally had validation.

“There were records the show hit with ratings. It was the first show that History ever bought without a pilot. They wanted it right away and bought 10 episodes. There were a lot of things going on, and all of a sudden we had History’s publicist calling us, putting us in The New York Times, on Letterman, Rachel Ray, and Anderson Cooper.”

With filming a show and making guest appearances, it’s important to not get caught up in the hype and lose site of who you are and what you want to express as a person.

“All of a sudden you realize, once you get at a certain level, you don't have to say yes to everything. I used to say yes to every single thing they threw in front of me, and I don’t anymore. Where before, I always felt I had to. You have to do it the right way though. I say no more often now, but I explain why I’m saying no to them.”

Just to step back a bit, when Mike first saw Pawn Stars on air, he thought he lost his chance with American Pickers. It was too similar. But little did he know, History was looking for a sister show to Pawn Stars. That’s why they wanted him so fast. Mike’s timing finally was perfect. It’s also a lesson that something similar doesn’t mean your idea is dead.

“When I first started showing my stuff, I was so nervous someone would just tweak it a little and make it their own. Friends in Nashville told me to write a treatment and register it. The treatment can be there with the WGA, but if they change it enough to make it their own, they can still screw you. I was always nervous of that.”

The other reality is, if you don’t put yourself out there and take a risk, it’s guaranteed your show will never get made. Protect yourself when you can, but also know when to jump in with both feet.

Mike’s risk paid off. Not only is American Pickers a success, History Channel has just sold their first franchise to Australia. Now the show is the number one show in Asia. Despite being the show creator, Mike doesn’t get anything for the spin-offs. Unfortunately, being new and using the wrong type of lawyer cost him.

“Reality is, I was too new for the show to have given me all of that anyway. I was smart enough to ask for an EP title and creator title. I did get that. Now I’m going to start directing the show for season five. In the past, our directors would stay a month and leave. No one knows my business like I do. In reality TV they always ask you to do stupid shit. They’re always struggling for storyline. But I wanted to make the picks so powerful that they were the storyline.”

After all those years pitching the show, I wondered what it was like to flip on the TV and see his dream come to life.

“When I first saw the show, I hated it. Then I saw the ratings, and I was like okay. But I still have disagreements with the network and the production company on how I want things to be.”

But after a few seasons under his belt, the network has learned to trust Mike’s instincts. If Mike had rolled over on different occasions, the show would have been completely different and would probably never have gotten the ratings it has.

“It probably wouldn't even be on the air anymore, to be honest with you. Don’t get me wrong, there’s always give and take in collaboration. Like tomorrow, I have my EP from History flying into Nashville and we’re going to sit down and talk about season five. They are listening to me. It’s not just a title I have as an EP. In fact, when I started, I didn't even know what an EP was. My cameraman was telling me, ‘Hey dude, you’re the EP. You're the boss. Tell him how you feel.’ I was like, I’m his boss? (laughs) Then I got to the point I’d joke and say, ‘Hey don't make me pull out the EP’ (laughs).

As I sat around my parents’ pond having lunch with the crew, it was evident how much of a family they are.

American Pickers Crew

'American Pickers' Crew at Fran and Paul's - Episode 'Ladies Know Best'

“I have people who have been with me on crew for three years… cameraman, sound man, PA, storyline assistants… they love the show that much. I’ve always fought for every single one of them in contract negotiations. My cameraman, John Chiappardi, knows me so well he helps me finish my thoughts. We’re a well-oiled machine.”

That off-screen chemistry clearly serves the show and shines through to the audience.

“The biggest honor is so many people come up to me and say it’s the only show they watch as a family.”

All during my conversation with Mike, I was amazed how truly humble he is despite, or maybe because of, having experienced so much rejection for so many years. He has risen above his previous disappointments to a place of appreciation, especially for his viewership.

“I remember this one time Frank and I were driving down the road when we were filming season one and said, 'Isn’t it going to be weird if we get to the point where people ask for our autographs.' (laughs) And it was at first, and then you kind of just sink into it all.”

“For me, I’ve been self-employed for 26 years. I’m all about the business of things, how things work, what the benefits are, trying to connect the dots regarding relationships. Having said that, it’s recognizing every single person I meet on the street or wherever it is, if they come up to me and like the show, they are the ones writing my check. Every single day I realize that, and I still will come home to my house here in Nashville and will look around and I think, God, am I living someone else’s life? My life has changed so much in the last three years; it’s like being shot out of a cannon. I mean you couldn’t have taken two more ordinary people and put the spotlight on them, and then have the public enjoy it so much.”

Mike Wolfe has no intention of being a one-hit wonder. Stay tuned for Part 3 next week where he discusses how this thrust into fame has birthed his next set of projects.

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