Reasons why Storage Wars is totally fake

Humans love to live vicariously through others. When we watch other people get rich in ridiculously simple ways, we like to imagine that we, too, could get rich, even though we fail to appreciate the part where you actually have to get off your couch, turn off the television, and, you know, step outside the front door. As a first step.

Still, the closer those folks come to getting rich without actually putting in the long hours learning a trade or studying at a university, the more we like to watch them and dream that we might also one day find pirate treasure in an abandoned storage locker. So you might actually be disappointed to hear that some of the treasure-hunting reality shows like Storage Wars aren't reality — they're scripted and staged and, yes, totally fake. And sometimes we get remarkable insight into the whole process of fakery, thanks to a disgruntled employee who is suing the network. So here it is — it's not just speculation, it's the facts behind why A&E's Storage Wars is totally fake.

Because Storage Wars' own star said it's fake

As long as everyone involved with a reality show keeps their mouths shut, we can all continue to exist in the blissful state of ignorance that allows us to believe that what we're seeing is real. After all, "reality" is right there in the name of the genre, so we must be looking at real life, right? Then someone like Dave Hester comes along and wrecks it for everyone. Yes, that's right, Dave Hester — one of the stars of A&E's Storage Wars — not only told the world the show was fake, he laid it all down in a lawsuit he filed against A&E Network in late 2012. According to ABC, Hester filed the lawsuit because he said A&E fired him for complaining about all the fakery.

Hester alleged wrongful termination, unfair business practices, breach of contract, and that oh by the way, television audience, everything you see on the show is faker than a suspiciously shiny treasure chest sitting in a storage locker. "[The] defendants ... would like the public to believe that the Series presents a genuine and accurate portrayal of the abandoned storage locker auction process," said the lawsuit. "The truth, however, is that nearly every aspect of the series is faked."

Now there's always been speculation that Storage Wars (and pretty much every other reality television program, ever) is totally fake, but when a reality star actually comes forward and says so on an actual legal document, well, it's kind of hard to keep living in that blissful state of ignorance.

Okay, maybe we faked Storage Wars, but only a little

The show's producers are kind of used to the accusations — the summer before Dave Hester filed his lawsuit, executive producer Thom Beers defended the show during a panel discussion sponsored by the National Geographic Channel. And come on, folks, lying in the presence of National Geographic is like lying to Mother Nature herself.

When one of the panelists said something about the rumors that the containers on Storage Wars were "salted," Beers said, "Nope. I can honestly tell you that the stuff found in those containers are found in storage containers." So that sounds super-genuine and all, but really if the stuff was bought at antique stores, then transported to the storage lockers in storage containers, then technically that statement would still be accurate. But let's reserve judgment for now.

Anyway, Beers goes on to say that they might have 20 or 30 auctions and occasionally they'll just sort of combine their finds into one locker so they don't have to film all the lockers individually. That's not exactly "salting," but it isn't exactly reality, either. But it does say something about how the Storage Wars producers are willing to bend the truth, and if they're happy to do it a little bit, how do we know where they might draw the line? We don't.

Storage Wars' stars are fake, too

This isn't really the same kind of fake, exactly, and really if you were going to complain about famous people getting plastic surgery, you'd have to implicate pretty much everyone in Hollywood. But according to Business Insider, Hester's lawsuit weirdly called out this particular act of Storage Wars fakery, too: "Nearly every aspect of the Series is faked, even down to the plastic surgery that one of the female cast members underwent in order to create more 'sex appeal' for the show."

That particular accusation led everyone to start speculating about who exactly took one for the team by going under the knife. There are really only two candidates — one is a bidder, and the other helps run the auctions. So that does seem like kind of a low blow. Storage Wars might be fake and one or more of the female stars might have had plastic surgery, but it seems like you've got plenty of ammunition against the network without having to drag the other cast members into it.

The Storage Wars auctions are faked

Before the stars of Storage Wars can find treasure among the cardboard and Rubbermaid, there first must be an auction. And the auction has to be fun and exciting, or viewers will just go, "Forget this I'm going to watch Better Call Saul." (It's a much better use of your time but you didn't hear that from us.)

Dave Hester's complaint says A&E will often fake the auctions themselves: "While on location filming an auction, Defendants also film footage of the cast members and the public bidding when no actual auction is taking place, in order to make it appear that any of the cast members is bidding at any given auction, whether or not he or she is actually bidding on the unit."

There's some other lesser fakery related to the Storage Wars auctions, such as when the cameras follow cast members as they leave before the end of the auction, presumably to inspect the contents of the locker they just bought — even though the winning bidder usually isn't allowed to see the inside of the locker until the day after the auction. That does keep the action moving along but still ... reality, people. It's right there in the name of the genre.

Just leveling the playing field a little

According to Business Insider, Dave Hester lobbed a whole lot of accusations at Storage Wars, and one of those was that instead of just letting the drama unfold, the network would sometimes pay for the lockers that were bid on by less experienced members of the cast so the playing field would be even. So in other words, the bigger, more established storage locker moguls were using their own money to invest in lockers while the smaller businesses were depending on A&E to keep them in the game.

It's obvious why A&E might choose to do this — it wouldn't be much of a "war" if one of the armies had an overwhelming disadvantage over the other. On the other hand, Storage Slaughter would also appeal to the average reality television viewer. But logistically speaking, if you're going to let your "weaker" cast members go bankrupt on bad purchases or get constantly outbid because they lack capital, you're going to have an unsustainably high turnover in your Storage Wars cast. So from a pragmatic standpoint, this is probably one of the lesser crimes A&E was accused of.

Yeah, the show is kind of unpalatably salty

Hmm, it does actually appear that the Storage Wars showrunners were doing some salting, and we don't mean their french fries either. According to gossip site Radar Online, there is an actual paper trail that shows that stuff was planted inside the storage lockers. Of course, the information comes from "one source with knowledge," which isn't exactly an impressive title or anything, but here's what the honorable Mr. or Mrs. One Source with Knowledge had to say:

"There are invoices, checks, and other documentation where the production company actually compensated cast members for supplying items that were planted in the lockers and then 'discovered' on camera." OSK then goes on to explain that cast members would charge A&E a "rental" fee if they would put their own valuable stuff in the storage lockers to later be "discovered." Because this was essentially a business transaction, there are receipts and invoices and checks that provide damning evidence of fakery.

Another anonymous source, speaking on NPR's On the Media in 2012, said he was acquainted with someone whose job was to purchase the antiques that the Storage Wars producers would then plant in the storage lockers. Sometimes, producers would even have things appraised "several weeks before" the cast members actually "discovered" it. Ugh, please pass the water, that's way, way too salty.

Also the Storage Wars lines are scripted

So Thom Beers admitted to kind of sort of not being totally honest about what items were actually found in which storage lockers. Guess what, in that same National Geographic panel, he also admitted to kind of sort of scripting some of the interviews with cast members. It was excused as "a substitute for narration" because no one likes to listen to those deadpan off-camera narrators. Or something.

"I have to admit: There's some writing involved," Beers said. "We do it in Storage Wars, we do it in America's Lost Treasures. ... I'm so tired of narration driving story." So basically that means that the stars are given lines — about half their lines, according to Beers — so the stars can tell their own stories.

That's also understandable, and it seems like a minor offense compared to some of the other things Storage Wars has been accused of. And anyway, it's not like anyone was actually fooled by the stellar acting chops of the Storage Wars stars. On the other hand, is it really reality if it's scripted? And more importantly, is reality more important than the quality of the entertainment? And extra more importantly, why is anyone using the word "quality" in conjunction with a discussion of reality television? Oh, the great mysteries of life.

Storage Wars stages the lockers to fit the narrative

But wait, there's more. Anyone who has ever owned a storage unit can tell you what a normal storage unit actually looks like. It's full of spiders, everything is covered with dust, the boxes have all been haphazardly piled because it's really just junk that you don't want to deal with right now and that $49 monthly storage fee seems worth it compared to losing a weekend to decluttering when you could be half asleep on your couch watching Storage Wars instead.

Anyway, that's what most storage units look like on the inside, but if you pay attention to the show you know that neatly arranged storage units tend to have elevated chances of containing valuable items. And if we believe that the storage units are salted, it seems logical that they're also staged to make them fit the narrative.

One amateur sleuth found evidence of this right in Storage Wars' own footage. Early in the episode, he noticed that one of the lockers contained the usual jumble of haphazardly piled half-opened boxes and other junk. But later the cast started talking about how this same locker was likely to contain good stuff because the boxes had all been so "neatly packaged." Cut to a second shot of the unit, which was pretty much the exact same shot except all those half-opened boxes were now neatly stacked and carefully taped up. This is what editors are for, folks.

The Storage Wars appraisers are not really appraisers

The anonymous reality television employee who spoke to NPR's On the Media also had some damning things to say about the Storage Wars appraisers themselves. "And then they would bring [the items found in the lockers] to appraisers, which were not always, or even often, actual appraisers."

Okay, so let's sum up what we know so far. The auctions aren't always auctions, the items found in the storage lockers aren't always found in the storage lockers, and the appraisers who actually decide the value of the items that were not found in the storage lockers aren't actually appraisers and therefore probably don't know what they're talking about. Also, the Storage Wars stars say lines fed to them by the producers and the whole thing is tainted by network cash.

"And knowing that ruins the excitement of the show," the anonymous source goes on to say. Yeah, it does. What channel is Better Call Saul on again?

A&E's defense of Storage Wars was kind of self-incriminating

Some of the arguments in Dave Hester's lawsuit appear to come down to questions about what sort of show Storage Wars actually is. The lawsuit refers to a "contest" and "contestants" and seems to be alleging that Storage Wars is a game show that's been rigged to favor the weaker participants. A&E, on the other hand, says the show is protected by the First Amendment, which basically gives producers the right to run it however they like.

It's kind of a strange argument that basically amounts to "lies are protected by the First Amendment" (which can be true, depending on the context). It does make a certain weird kind of sense, though, if you also consider that regular, scripted dramas don't have an obligation to tell the truth, either. So really the only thing that separates reality television from scripted television is this perception we all have that reality TV is supposed to be truthful. But there certainly aren't any specific laws that say it has to be.

So from a legal angle A&E has a point, but aren't they also basically admitting that it's all just a ruse? That seems bad for its reputation, doesn't it? Well, the show is still airing, so what do we know.

Fakery is just expressive free speech

So what actually happened when all the Storage Wars legal drama was over? Well. After the first round, Dave Hester did not emerge triumphant, but it wasn't because the judge decided it was all on the up-and-up and nothing screwy was going on behind the scenes. In fact what the judge actually decided is that all the fakery was totally cool because it was "expressive free speech."

According to Screener, the judge ultimately decided that Hester wasn't specific enough with his accusations of wrongful termination, so he threw out the case, but he also said Hester could refile, assuming he could figure out how to be more specific. And that's what Hester did — and in July 2014 the case was finally settled for an undisclosed amount.

So what does this mean for reality TV? Nothing, really — the settlement really only addressed the accusations of wrongful termination, not the fake TV stuff. So reality TV can just go on doing what it's always done. Because if fake reality television is simply "expressive free speech," then there really isn't any expectation of honesty between reality TV producers and their audience. So for the rest of us to truly enjoy the reality television experience, we now need to just close our eyes and pretend really hard. Which is what all the people on the show are doing anyway.

And then this happened...

Are you ready for the punchline? According to International Business Times, after the whole ugly lawsuit was over A&E welcomed Dave Hester back to Storage Wars. Yes, that's right: "It's all in the past now, come back and be a reality TV star again on our admittedly very, very fake show."

Hester's return to Storage Wars following the lawsuit has some pluses and minuses for the network. First, he was a popular character, and before his return the show's ratings were on the decline. Second, ugly on-screen conflict is great for reality television, and you really can't sue your employer and come back to the office afterward without there being some residual tension. But although it probably doesn't seem like it on the surface, there are some other, more sinister reasons why keeping Hester close is probably a good thing for the network. We've already seen what happens to his mouth when he's not working for A&E — under contract, he's probably more likely to refrain from ratting out all the fakery at his first opportunity. What better way to make sure a former employee stays loyal than to make him not-a-former-employee? Just maybe don't let him in on too many of the show's secrets.

Because Antiques Roadshow said Storage Wars is fake, so therefore it's fake

Before there was Storage Wars, before there was Pawn Stars, there was Antiques Roadshow, the original "how much is this thing worth" television series, the ultimate show to watch people attempt to be gracious as a polite appraiser crushes their dreams by telling them that the ugly statuette they found in Grandma's attic isn't even worth a wooden nickel.

Anyway, Antiques Roadshow has real, actual antiques and collectibles cred, and guess what, they totally think Storage Wars is fake. "It's an entertainment show," Antiques Roadshow executive producer Marsha Bemko said in an interview, though she added that she thinks shows in the genre help generate interest in antiques, which is ultimately good for her show, too. She also pointed out that the appraisers on Antiques Roadshow are more likely to provide a fair assessment of the items that are featured on the show, since they don't have a financial stake in the buying or selling of those items.

And then one of the show's appraisers added, "I think it's also important to remember that those shows are totally staged. ... Is it really reasonable to think that someone on 'Storage Locker Wars' is going to find a $100,000 item that somebody left in a storage locker?" Probably not. Also, it's not called "Storage Locker Wars," but at this point who really cares.