Reality Capitalism TV

I was just thinking the other night about the current crop of “reality TV” shows out there on the History Channel, TLC and the like, shows like “Ice Road Truckers,” “Axe Men,” “Deadliest Catch,” “Pawn Stars” and “American Pickers.”

They’re televising capitalism. Hell, they’re celebrating it. How did that happen?

If I’m not mistaken, it started with Mike Rowe‘s series, “Dirty Jobs,” of which “Deadliest Catch” is a spin-off. For those two of you who might not have seen it, “Dirty Jobs” is a show about people who do the most manual of manual-labor work in some of the nastiest jobs you’re likely to find. Crab fishing in the Bearing Sea is among those jobs. It’s cold, exhausting, mind- and body-numbing work that can get you dead or injured in short order through a moments inattention or through absolutely no fault of your own.

But it pays great – if your captain does his job well.

In the first three shows I list, “Ice Road Truckers,” “Axe Men” and “Deadliest Catch,” the stars do high-risk manual labor jobs in rough conditions and pull down good pay doing it. They do this voluntarily – no one tells them they must, they choose their professions. They all know that they could find other work, less dangerous, less risky, but they take pride in the fact that they are doing something that few other people are willing to do, and that has a pay scale commensurate to their rare skills and work ethic.

It’s called “the pursuit of happiness” for a reason.

In the last two, “Pawn Stars” and “American Pickers,” the stars don’t risk themselves, but their capital – and they’re neither bashful nor ashamed of it. In “Pawn Stars” people bring things in to sell, and we in the audience get to see a huge variety of items that people have collected or acquired. They often but not always get an offer, and they decide whether to accept. Each time an offer is made, the guys behind the counter are risking their money on the belief that at some time in the future they can sell the item at a profit. Experts are often brought in to identify and authenticate items in order to reduce the risk, but not always. I’m not certain what agreements the experts have with the shop, but I would not be at all surprised to learn that at least some of them are paid an annual retainer for their services. Their customers are free to refuse the offer, and often do. That’s capitalism at its raw base – an item is worth what two parties agree upon.

In “American Pickers” the stars are more proactive – they go looking for stuff and then try to convince people to A) let them look around, and then B) sell. The stars are not only risking their capital on inventory, they are out spending money and time in active search. They very seldom contact an expert until after they’ve made a purchase, so their risk is higher, and they have much less in the way of a “walk-in” clientele, reducing the volume of material they can acquire. Consequently, their profit margins need to be higher to cover their risks and expenses.

In both shows the stars use third-parties as restorers/renovators, adding value to many of the purchases and increasing both their saleability and (hopefully) profitability, thus creating jobs. The people who do these jobs are chosen for their knowledge and skills, and they too are pursuing happiness. Vendor A is chosen over Vendor B because of their reputation, not because A put in a lower bid.

I have to admit, as little TV as I watch, I do occasionally enjoy some of these shows, and I’m pleased to see capitalism given a bit of its due on the nation’s cable networks.

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