‘American Pickers’ Star Mike Wolfe Explained How He Learned to Adapt with Success

by Josh Lanier

Mike Wolfe spent five years unsuccessfully pitching American Pickers to networks. During that time, the concept of the show warped and wobbled as Wolfe altered the idea to meet changing television tastes. Even now, the show is evolving to stay ahead of the many copycats that have sprung up over the years. Wolfe believes being able to adapt is the key to success in any industry.

For instance, after American Pickers became a hit for The History Channel, Mike Wolfe wanted to train the next generation of pickers, he explained in 2013. He set out to create a new show that would feature kids buying and selling items they’d collected themselves. But no network wanted a reality show featuring children. So, he changed the idea to make it animated. He got a lot more interest in that version of the show. But, like most television pitches, it didn’t work out.

That idea eventually became his book Kid Pickers: How to Turn Junk Into Treasure. It’s a guide to teach kids how to find items, figure out what their worth, and how to sell them.

“My ideas are always organic,” he told an audience in 2013, “meaning they grow with the situation — just like all of us do. But I’m not fixated on my idea to the point where it has to be there.”

He explained that whenever he hit a roadblock in pitching a project, he would pull back and refocus the idea.

“I would take my alternative energy and think from a different angle,” he explained.

It’s what legendary Hollywood director Orson Wells pointed decades ago. Obstacles are the fuel of creativity.

“The absence of limitations,” Wells said, “is the enemy of art.”

Mike Wolfe Talks Pitching ‘American Pickers’ for 5 Years

American Pickers was a runaway success when it first premiered on The History Channel in 2010. But it seemed destined for the trash bin for years.

“I was always on the road finding great stuff. I shared some of my experiences with my friends, and they said, ‘You should buy a video camera,’ so I did. I put it on the dash and talked into it as I drove around. And I made videos and posted them on my website,” he told Southeastern Antiquing and Collecting Magazine in 2011.

Those early videos focused on the weird and valuable things he pulled out of barns, attics, and musty basements. It was similar to American Pickers but lacked the charm of the show. Wolfe learned that the real value wasn’t the cash he was making. It was the people he was meeting and the history of the items he salvaged.

He adapted his approach to be more like Anthony Bourdain, the Des Moines Register noted. The chef-turned-television host used the dinner table as a storytelling vehicle. He focused on the people who made the meal, the culture where it was created, and the experience of eating it. Wolfe re-tuned his videos to do something similar.

That was the change that the show needed to hook a potential buyer. Because The History Channel bought the show soon after.