How to Get a Reality Show: Interview with Mike Wolfe of American Pickers
Pull up a chair, friends, because I have to tell you a social media fairy tale before I launch into the interview. This post is long, but the interview is packed with tips on television, promotion, fame and old stuff found in barns.
My sister has a problem. She's enamored with Michael Wolfe from American Pickers. It's a reality show on the History Channel about this guy from Le Claire, Iowa, who goes around and tries to find treasures in people's trash, which he then sells for fun and profit. While I do love the show, I think I'm also just over the moon that they gave a reality show to someone in my native Iowa. A very, very popular reality show. That doesn't make you want to brush your teeth after you watch it.
My sister, however, swears her relationship with Mike goes far beyond the viewing area. She says he's in love with her, and it's really got to stop. I don't know, what do you think? Judge for yourself from her open letter:
I'm sorry to have to give up on you in such a public forum, but I really needed to get this off my chest. (My Iowa, sun-kissed, freckled chest that could have your head resting upon it right now while we fish together on a bank somewhere on this lovely day--were it not for all of the above bulleted points and the ones I can't think of that I will remember later and then be really mad I didn't mention.) And don't try showing up at my little farmhouse with a white-gold/ruby (emerald- or cushion-cut; size 7) engagement ring and your camera crew and get down on one knee to try to make up for it. For reals.
After I read her post and finished laughing, I did what any self-respecting big sister would do: I made fun of her on Twitter.
And then ... there was a social media miracle. Mike Wolfe tweeted me back.
The skies opened and angels sang, and I believe I snorted chardonnay out my nose. My husband spent some time trying to figure out why I was choking before I could belt out an explanation.
Of course, I immediately called my sister, who was also home doing absolutely nothing on a Friday night, and we laughed until she snorted and every cat in my extended family ran for the hills.
The next day, my sister wrote another post, again trying to break off their unproductive and imaginary relationship:
Don't let him fool you. He's NOT sorry things didn't work out. He's just being all casual about it because he still has a master plan to infiltrate my family and make them all love him, too. It's not going to be hard. My parents LOVE the show. And it turns out my sister and BIL are watching it as well. It's going to be harder than I thought to extract myself from this relationship.
So I call up my sister. She's at home on a Friday night (also a loser) watching a movie with her husband. I tell her that Mike Wolfe is apparently in New York picking things (winner) and actually responded to her. We LAUGH and LAUGH--I mean talk seriously about whether or not I should get a restraining order.
After the hilarity died down, I decided to ask Mike if I could, like, really interview him, about important stuff like the show and the great state of Iowa. (Which produces amazing bloggers as well as reality show television stars.)(Ahem.)
And he said yes!
Rita Arens: How ever did you get the word out to The History Channel about what you were doing? Did you go to them or did they come to you?
Mike Wolfe: I pitched the show for four and a half years and learned a lot in that time frame. It started out because I traveled a lot by myself, having all these amazing experiences with people and their collections. I wanted a way to share that, so I bought a video camera and put it on my dash and started talking into it.
I would approach people just like I would without the camera. After I'd been on the property for a while, I'd ask them if they'd mind filming me while I was picking through their stuff. They'd be kind of laughing about it, and I'd have to say, "Do you mind not laughing so much? Because I can't edit that out."
A local younger guy had a company called Crazy Eyes Productions. I brought him my tapes, and he put together a three-minute piece. We started making these videos, and I'd post them on my website. This went on for four and a half years.
People told me I needed to write a treatment before I started pitching the idea to networks. I contacted a production company in Washington, D.C., and they wanted to bring it to the market. I made sure I kept in contact with anyone they pitched, kept myself involved. The production company really didn't take it anywhere. Everyone liked my tapes, but they didn't know what to do with it.
And a lot of people kept telling me they didn't think anyone was going to watch a show about collectibles.
The only thing that kept me going was that everyone I ever showed it to loved it. And it was out on the web, so we were starting to get some grassroots followers online.
I had made all these tapes with incredible moments of discovering things, but there was no format to the show. A woman at TLC who I kept in contact with made it happen. She did Flip This House, which was the first home improvement show. She introduced to me the importance of format -- we had all the leaves and no tree. I made a full show, 26 minutes, and I sent it to her. And then she said we nailed it and it was going to be on the air.
Her network didn't take it, but The History Channel bought it within a week. It was the first time History had ever bought a show without a pilot.
It's a doci-soap. People like the story behind the stuff. As for nobody wanting to watch a show about collectibles? Right now they're filming 13 episodes of Canadian Pickers. And now everyone wants an antique show. It's all over the Internet. I've already run into all the people in New York who didn't think the category would work. I never thought it would be as big as it is.
RA: How long does it take to film one episode?
MW: Fourteen days to make 44 minutes. It's a lot more work than I ever thought it would be. Yesterday we started at 8 a.m. and got done around 8:30 p.m. It's not like everything is filmed in one location -- this is like travel, travel, travel. Now we're doing two weeks on and two weeks off so we can take care of business back home and have a bit of a rest.
RA: Do women often throw themselves at you as forcefully as my sister did?
MW: She was hilarious, and that's why I tweeted back. I never really noticed anyone throwing themselves at me. Right now I'm in Pittsburgh, and women will say things like, "Oh, I love your show," and the crew thinks they like me and I think they like the show. When we're talking, we're talking about the show. A woman the other day asked me to sign her boob and the other one asked me to sign her butt. That was a first. Also? People think I'm in a relationship with Danielle, but I'm not.
(Ed. Note: This is where I desperately wanted to pry into his personal life, but I held myself back because this is BlogHer and not TMZ.)
RA: Any advice for would-be reality television stars?
MW: People come up to me all the time, and they have these ideas. I tell them the process that I went through. We could talk for two hours on just that. The best thing to do is surround yourself with people who are creative and on the same page as you. Finding 23-year-old Justin was the best thing that ever happened to me, because he was young and didn't care about collectibles -- he saw the connection between Frank and me as the interesting part. He also made the video very professional.
You need to get yourself on camera. You're the vehicle, you're the person who people need to connect with. You have to put your best foot forward and realize that it's you, not so much the storyline or everything else around it. You're going to have to carry it. Once you have the good idea and you've got their attention, it boils down to you.
The other piece of advice -- find the right production company that has the relationships. Scout Productions -- they did Queer Eye for the Straight Guy -- was a company I was really excited about getting involved with, almost starstruck, but when they sent over the contract it was the worst deal in the world for me. I knew they could sell the show, but if they did sell it, I'd be stuck with these guys for five years.
I didn't want to do it -- it was one of the most difficult decisions I'd made. I wanted it to happen so bad, but I didn't want it to happen that way. I thought more of myself -- I thought I could still do it, but not that way. I think they were shocked that I walked away.
I think that's one of the reasons I got the show -- I ate, slept and breathed this thing for four years trying to get the show on the air. There was a point at which I was exhausted with it. You just have to keep surrounding yourself with the right people and get in front of people at the right time. These people look at 100 tapes in an hour. If you don't have their attention in the first 15 seconds, you're done. To even get into the meeting is a feat in itself. Being persistent can drive you nuts. Be a sponge, ask people what you like about it, what you don't like about it. Always listen. It was evolving -- I wasn't pitching the same thing over and over -- it was changing and getting better.
(Ed. Note: Here I went on and on about how hard book publishing is, but that will bore you and this is about Mike. So please to endure the rough transition.)
I'm doing a book right now with a friend of mine Libby Callaway (fashion blogger) as a ghostwriter. It's going to be a little bit of biography, a little bit stories from the road, a little bit of other stuff.
RA: Why did you do so much work to get a show?
MW: I wanted to give these items a voice. My shop is my canvas, those things are my landscape, my colors. In my shop, I'm showing people how I would use it. I don't just buy for antique dealers. I sell to prop houses, I sell to people who do music videos, I sell to still photographers. I buy different things than I bought five years ago. The transportation stuff has always been the bread and butter. All of these other things have come about because I pay attention to the trends. And I love doing it. I can see the beauty in it, and I want it really bad. I want to find it. I'm not a decorator, but I want to find that awesome accent piece, to find something people will find beautiful.
What I took away from this interview? Mike never let being in a small town in the Midwest stop him from pitching this show, and he is incredibly successful. We talked awhile about flyover states and how people often give me a hard time for living in Kansas City. Never apologize for being from a small town, a less-populated state. Never let anyone make you feel less-than because of geography.
My sister and I would both like to thank Mike for his excellent sense of humor and for representing THE GREAT STATE OF IOWA so well.
Gratuitous plug: American Pickers is on Mondays at 9/8 Central on The History Channel.