In American Pickers two guys, Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz, travel around the country in a Mercedes Sprinter, buying junk which they claim they will be able to resell at a profit. They work with Danielle Colby-Cushman, who runs the office, Antique Archeology, from their home base in Le Claire, Iowa. She researches potential leads and directs Mike and Frank to the people with all the interesting junk. Sometimes Mike and Frank "freestyle" which means they just cruise around until they see a place that has potential. Of course, it's all for show.
In 2006 Mike Wolfe approached the owner of Crazy Eyes Productions with the idea for American Pickers. At that time his sidekick on the show, Frank Fitz, was working as a safety and fire inspector. Frank did have an interest in antiques and in his spare time bought and sold them. Mike and Frank, though long-time friends, were never in the picking business together even though that's what is suggested on the show.
Tattooed Danielle was a roller-derby star, burlesque performer and fashion designer. A Jehovah's Witness and mother of three she didn't know anything about antiques, but was a long-tine friend of Mike Wolfe. That's why when the show went into production, Wolfe gave her the job as "office manager" at Antique Archeology.
American Pickers is at least semi-scripted and Wolfe and Fitz do not travel in the Mercedes all by themselves. Aerial shots of them driving down road are taken from a helicopter in various locations and the staged dialogue between Mike and Frank inside the van are filmed on a set. When they go on location, they travel with set dressing trucks, camera trucks, wardrobe trailers, hair and makeup trailers...all the necessary Hollywood accoutrements. That makes sense; somebody has to do the filming. The show’s production team has to get written consent from the owner and anyone who is going to be filmed. It's obvious they can't just pop by unannounced and start filming.
The biggest and probably most obvious part of the ruse is when they pretend they don't know what they are going to "find." They have prior knowledge of the salvaged junk and their is no real haggling over the price. That was all done by advance men prior to filming.
People who work for the production company are the ones who actually ferret out all the good junk and then auditions the sellers and pay them for appearing on the show. When Mike and Frank show up they don't really search for anything nor do they actually find anything. It's all been planted or in the case of some items that appear buried and/or dusty and dirty, they are made aware of what they are digging out ahead of time
That's not so say the interaction between Frank and Mike and the sellers is totally scripted, but obviously they don't just show up at people's homes out of the blue. There's already a crew there when Mike and Frank arrive and sometimes dialog is edited and scripted. After all, that's the way you make a television show and cram everything into an hour.
Most of the antiques and other finds that Frank and Mike purchase on the show are given an estimate which would make for a pretty great return, sometimes more than 200 percent of what they paid! The show also makes it seem like it’s fairly easy for someone with knowledge of antiques to find items for a cheap price then turn around and sell them for big bucks.
Ask somebody in the business for real...it's not that easy!
When it comes to prices, they usually look ridiculously high and it's hard to believe anybody would actually pay the exorbitant prices quoted. That's fake, of course. They are always buying advertising signs...usually badly damaged...at hard to believe prices. There is a market for advertising signs, but collectors want them in good condition, not all bent up with scratches, dings, rusty and half the paint missing. The retail price for a good sign is probably half what they offer for the junk on the show.
Of course Wolfe really does sell antiques and they actually do have a dinky building on a side street "back home." Mike and Frank come across as genuinely nice guys, but a 2014 article in USA Today carried a story about an auctioneer in Greenville, South Carolina that got skinned by Frank. That hurt!
Why do I watch such an obviously faked show? Probably for the same reason people watch murder mysteries where it's all fake because nobody actually gets murdered. It's entertainment.