'Storage Wars,' 'Pickers' find a faithful aud

Thom Beers, exec producer of A&E’s “Storage Wars,” can sum up the show’s philosophy with a song.

“You gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em,” he says of the phrase made famous by the Kenny Rogers song “The Gambler.”

On the reality show, folks such as Darrell Sheets bid at auction for unpaid storage lockers, looking to make some serious coin by selling what’s inside. They only get a glance inside the units before bidding.

“It’s like a kid on Christmas waiting to unwrap presents,” Sheets says. “Boxes of surprises.”

It’s that element of mystery — a good old-fashioned treasure hunt — that producers say is making shows such as “Storage Wars,” “Pawn Stars” and “American Pickers” ratings juggernauts on cable. As Brent Montgomery, exec producer of “Pawn Stars,” puts it, they’re the “junk shows,” or more elegantly, “transaction shows.” But right now, they’re pure gold to their respective networks.

“Pawn Stars,” which follows the Harrison family’s pawn shop in Las Vegas, premiered on History in 2009. The third season, which premiered in January, averaged 6.3 million viewers, up from 2.5 million in two years ago.

“The audience is massive,” says Dirk Hoogstra, the net’s senior VP of development and programming. “For cable, it’s a huge hit, and it repeats to numbers people dream about. It’s lightning in a bottle.”

“Pawn Stars” is the No. 1 show on cable among adults 25-54 so far in 2011. Beers says viewers who are suffering financial woes see themselves in these type of shows and feel they can make a buck.

“Americans were obsessed with consumption — more, more, more stuff — and then the economy crashed,” he says. “So, now it’s, ‘What is all this stuff I had worth? I don’t have a job. I don’t have a pension.’ Now, instead of buying, it’s selling.”

Sheets agrees: “People watch our show and learn this as a career. I see so many new faces in the business now that we’re on, and one storage locker can change your life. These shows are selling hope.”

Still, shows about excess, such as Bravo’s “The Real Housewives” franchise, can be hits as well. But Beers points out that on several of those series, main characters have faced foreclosures and bankruptcies.

“People like to watch the mighty fall,” he says.

And the consensus is that stuff shows are successful because of more than just what will sell and what won’t. History’s “American Pickers” follows longtime friends Frank Fritz and Mike Wolfe as they travel the U.S. and rifle through people’s homes and yards for finds.

“Ninety percent of the fans tell me that they are not collectors,” Wolfe says. “What they like about our show is the people we meet. The characters and our relationship, that’s what will sustain us.”

Harrison, a historian, points out that the shows offer family-friendly, educational programming as well.

“I hear from moms all the time that it’s the only show their family can sit down together and watch,” he says.

Already, dozens of copycats in the same vein are popping up. Montgomery is exec producer on Science Channel’s “Oddities,” TLC’s “What the Sell?!” and the upcoming Bravo skein “Ready to Wear,” set at a high-end consignment shop. There’s also “Auction Hunters” on Spike and “Hardcore Pawn” on truTV.

And certainly not all have caught lightning: TLC’s “Pawn Queens” hasn’t taken off, and neither did “What the Sell?!”

But despite the success of “Pawn Stars,” Montgomery isn’t putting all his stock in the genre.

“I think there will be a long life for these shows, but it’ll be about coming up with new ways to do them when the economy bounces back,” he says. “We’re definitely not putting all of our eggs in this one basket.”

ROAD TO THE EMMYS: REALITY & NON-FICTION
Reality as teaching tool | Are reality stars real? | ‘Stuff’ shows are a reality staple | Reality skeins in the running | Reality personalities that shine

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more