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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Next week, NBC is starting a new show called "It's Worth What?" The it in that title is antiques, or junk, depending on your point of view. There's now more than a dozen programs on that topic. Why so many?

Commentator Andrew Wallenstein tells us why TV viewers are so interested in other people's stuff and how much that stuff is worth.

ANDREW WALLENSTEIN: Think of "It's Worth What?" as "The Price is Right" crossed with "Antiques Roadshow."

(Soundbite of television program, "It's Worth What?")

(Soundbite of applause)

CEDRIC THE ENTERTAINER: Now I've got a couple of cool things to show you. All you have to do is tell me what's worth more.

WALLENSTEIN: On this game show, host Cedric the Entertainer has contestants guess the value of objects found anywhere from your neighbor's attic to international museums.

(Soundbite of television program, "It's Worth What?")

Unidentified Man: We are going with the gloves.

CEDRIC THE ENTERTAINER: Are you sure?

Unidentified Man: We are sure.

WALLENSTEIN: "It's Worth What?" represents a cable craze crossing over to broadcast, and the trend isn't over yet. Another show, "Buried Treasure," is coming to Fox in August. They join "American Pickers," "Auction Hunters," "Auctioneers," "Auction Kings," "Auction Packed," "Cash and Cari," and "What the Sell." My God, someone call the pun police.

Now antiques are not a new attraction on TV. PBS first introduced the "Roadshow" back in 1979. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The Antiques Roadshow started on PBS in 1997.]

(Soundbite of television program, "Antiques Roadshow")

(Soundbite of music)

WALLENSTEIN: But that's not the show causing this craze.

(Soundbite of television program, "Pawn Stars")

Unidentified Man #2: On this episode of "Pawn Stars."

Unidentified Man #3: It's a 1946 jukebox.

WALLENSTEIN: To some degree, blame it on "Pawn Stars," which became a huge hit for History Channel a few years ago.

(Soundbite of television program, "Pawn Stars")

Unidentified Man #4: I see government war bonds all the time, but I've never had one from the Revolutionary War.

WALLENSTEIN: And just like a vintage Rolex, it's inspired knockoffs.

(Soundbite of television program, "Hardcore Pawn")

Unidentified Man #5: In the heart of Detroit's Eight Mile lies the city's biggest and baddest pawn shop.

WALLENSTEIN: Why else do you think the channel truTV would come up with a show named...

(Soundbite of television program, "Hardcore Pawn")

Unidentified Man #5: "Hardcore Pawn."

WALLENSTEIN: Yup, the worst pun yet, "Hardcore Pawn." Copycat shows keep coming until the ratings say otherwise. But the weird thing is very few entries in this antique category fail. The inexhaustible supply here must be striking a deep chord among viewers.

And here's why: I don't think it's a coincidence that this genre has grown over the same time period that this country struggles through a recession. Maybe it shouldn't come as a surprise that what really resonates during tough times are images of average Americans dusting off items in the forgotten corners of their homes and discovering they've got hidden value.

But there's a cruel irony at play here. The types of businesses depicted in these programs traffic in people's financial problems, not prosperity.

Take pawn shops, for instance, which on TV may look like a fun place to trade in undiscovered treasure, but have you been in one of these stores lately? During a recession they're filled with debtors selling more mundane objects.

And as for shows like "Storage Wars" and "Storage Hunters," many of those lockers become open for raiding only when some poor soul has been forced to default on his or her personal belongings.

These shows project a fantasy on the back of a nightmare, the kind of hardships that are too depressing for reality TV. But transforming trash into cash, now that's an alchemy well-suited to this economy.

NORRIS: Commentator Andrew Wallenstein is an editor at Variety.

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