Reality Check: Tune into militaria on TV

“Yeah, yeah, yeah!” my Mother hollered from the kitchen the last time I was at my folks’ house. Before I could react to her mystifying call, my Dad, who was laid out in his Lazy Boy behind me, yelled, “Shoot ’em!” What in the heck was happening to my parents? Had their 80+ years finally caught up to them?

Pickers and Swamp People

After Dad replied with his mystifying demand to “Shoot ’em,” Mom gave a giggle, peered around the corner and asked me, “Do you watch ‘Swamp People’?” Oh, now I was really concerned about my parents.

“What ARE you talking about?” I asked with a tone I hadn’t employed since I was a teenager. What followed was a lengthy—and enthusiastic—explanation of the plot behind the History Channel’s hit reality show, “Swamp People.” It seems, the star “Troy” and his gang of alligator hunters had captured the imagination (and nearly fanatical allegiance) of my 88-year-old Mom and 90-year-old Dad.

“Swamp People” is not the only show the two regularly watch, however. They can tell you the day and air times of “Pawn Stars,” “American Pickers” and “American Restoration.” “Do you watch that?” they ask after delivering a synopsis of each show.

It doesn’t matter how many times I tell them my “basic cable” package barely provides three networks and a whole lot of shopping channels. Their comment is always the same, “You should watch [insert any one of the four shows]—you will learn something!”

Truth of the matter is, at one time or another, I have seen each of the shows they mentioned. Regardless of my judgment on content, the media-provider in me recognized one thing: The cost to produce and deliver the programs had to be very appealing to the networks. I often wondered how that model could apply to our hobby.

Mail Call and Combat Garage

True “reality” television really got it start with “Cops” (although Alan Funt’s “Candid Camera” was the true pioneer reality program). The idea of putting a camera crew in a police car caught on quickly. Audiences loved the window looking into the absurd. Networks loved not having to pay expensive writers, actors and set designers.

Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian and various high-maintenance housewives took the medium a bit further by allowing cameras into their daily lives. Viewers couldn’t get enough of the prancing, dancing and fighting. Trying to expand the market beyond shows depicting the rich and absurd, producers looked to the everyday lives of “common folks.” Out this movement, shows like “Deadliest Catch” and “Ice Road Truckers” emerged.

About the same time, a couple of scripted, “reality-like” shows appeared for the military enthusiast. Who can forget “Mail Call” with the Gunny blowing up watermelons with a variety of weapons? Short-lived, but certainly capturing the attention of historic military vehicle enthusiasts, “Combat Garage” and “Tank Overhaul” attempted to depict excitement in a sometimes not-too-exciting restoration facility as mechanics and crew restored armored vehicles.

Meanwhile, on PBS, “Antiques Road Show” plowed forward with its own style of reality television: Cashing in on attic finds. The producers were probably the most surprised by the success of the “Road Show.” Copycat shows emerged on various commercial networks, but “Road Show” reigned supreme. An episode of the hit NBC sitcom, “Frazier,” captured the “Road Show” phenomenon as Marty “cha-CHING’ed” after each artifact was evaluated and appraised. Americans loved looking over someone’s shoulder as the appraiser pronounced the object a treasure or a piece of worthless flotsam.

Whereas militaria was not represented with any frequency in the early days of the “Road Show,” it slowly crept in. A strong representation of American militaria seeped into the line up of “man-tiques” (firearms, Indian relics, old tools and other “masculine” collectibles). When the producers added expert militaria evaluators like Civil War dealer Rafael Eledge of Shiloh Relics and WWI aficionado Jeff Shrader of Advance Guard Militaria, interest in assessing military relics surged through potential guests and viewers alike.

Several commercial networks took note of this upswing in historic military relic interest. The proposals for new programs started to hit producers’ desks.

“Combat Cash” premiered this past Wednesday on the Discovery Channel. The episode showed Vintage Productions owner Bob Chatt and his partner Owen Thornton tracking down rare military treasures for their clients. They sourced a WWII Japanese tank, haggled over a Saddam Hussein propaganda piece and strapped on a parachute to make a deal on a WWII Paratrooper bicycle.

This past November, “Ready, Aim, SOLD!” debuted on the Discovery Channel. The pilot show followed the father-son team of Pat and Kevin Hogan who have turned their passion for history and collecting into an industry-leading company, Rock Island Auction Company. Though the premier of the show catapulted Rock Island’s subsequent sales to world record setting prices, subsequent shows don’t appear on Discovery’s spring docket—at least, not yet.

Currently, Alexander Cramner and the folks at International Military Collectibles (IMA-USA) are working on show tentatively titled “Battle Collectors” for the National Geographic Channel. The show is set to air in the fall of 2012.

WHAT’S THE REALITY OF ALL THIS REALITY?

With militaria gaining the spotlight of television networks, what should collectors expect?

While publicity is good for the long-term health of the hobby, the secret is out. As more shows feature items that have Marty’s “Cha-CHING” effect, viewers will develop a (sometimes erroneous) notion that all militaria is valuable. It will become progressively harder to buy items for pennies on the dollar. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it will make it harder for professional dealers to make a living. They will be forced to pay pickers’ prices closer to retail than in the past.

On the other hand, it will increase the field of potential buyers. Elevating the hobby from the closets and basements into the limelight will lend a great deal of legitimacy to what we do. More people will see the potential of digging out relics and selling them, while others will be fascinated by the notion of actually collecting. There is no doubt about it, reality television programs are helping the collecting community.

So the next time I hear Mom call out, “Yeah, yeah, yeah!”, I will respond with a bayou-accented “Shoot ’em!” Reality television has touched us all. And while Bob Chatt, Alexander Cramner, Pat Hogan or Jeff Shrader may not possess Kardashian- or Snooky-like sex appeal, these reality show pioneers are opening new doors to a nationwide understanding and appreciation of the military collecting hobby.

Stay tuned,
John Adams-Graf
Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine

 

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