The popularity of reality television continues to be a dominant presence throughout many North American households. Strong ratings are proof that Canadians and Americans alike are very fond of these types of shows whether it be Survivor, Big Brother, The Amazing Race, Celebrity Apprentice or a programme with at least one Kardashian prancing around in a bikini doing and/or saying something ridiculous. No doubt a big attraction is the characters and how they are developed throughout the various series of entertaining situations they find themselves directly involved with.
Two western Canadian gentlemen from Calgary are two of the newest reality TV stars on a program called Canadian Pickers, which airs Monday nights at 8 pm on History Television. The show chronicles the wheeling and dealing of Sheldon Smithens and Scott Cozens from coast to coast. Created by Cineflix Productions, the content is quite similar in format to another one of their production hits called American Pickers. The Canadian version is also broadcast in England, Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. with the name Cash Cowboys on H2. In Quebec the translation is Cowboy Pickers.
Each week Sheldon and Scott can be found traveling across Canada looking for hidden treasures and antiques in peoples’ basements, sheds, attics, barns or any other shelter where potential gems may have been stored or forgotten. The pair often comes up with some vintage items such as antiques, coins, furniture, toys and lots of other trinkets. If there’s monetary value to it – they want to know about it. If Sheldon and Scott determine value, they’ll offer to purchase the items with the master plan of reselling to earn a profit.
Season One of Canadian Pickers debuted in April, 2011. Due to overwhelming response from audiences, a second season aired earlier this calendar year and just recently the pair put the wraps on Season Three. In fact, it was just a day after the season wrap when we spoke to them.
Needless to say both Sheldon Smithens and Scott Cozens have had interesting lives that led them to where they are today. Cozens was originally an electrician who then became a lawyer. But “picking” has always been a hobby. That hobby has now been ramped up considerably with the success of the television program. On the other hand, Smithens is a third-generation antiques dealer who also provides his expertise as an auctioneer and appraiser. There’s no doubt that his background qualifies him as an expert picker. Until the show started he also did some teaching at the University of Calgary, but that’s now on hold due to necessary time commitments with doing the show.
“Unfortunately since the television show commenced – now three seasons ago – I haven’t been able to keep that up,” Smithens laments. “Prior to that for approximately 15 years through the University of Calgary and before that the city of Calgary Continuing Education I taught a course called ‘Antiques, Art and Auction’.”
It was over several sessions that Smithens would take students to antique shops and auction previews, the auction itself so it wasn’t so much classroom time in the traditional sense but it was being out where the real action happened to be.
The pair definitely has a strong synergy on-screen. Having known one another for about 20 years certainly helps. Smithens had an auction company and an antiques store.
“Sheldon’s mother and my mother are about the same age,” Cozens tells us. “My mom and I used to go to garage sales and would stop into his shop and that’s how we got to be friends.”
Cozens has a wife, Lana, and three children who are 16, eight and five. Smithens has a wife, Theresa.
“No children, but they have dogs,” Cozens interjects with a hearty laugh.
“American Pickers had already aired in the United States but not in Canada and it was decided that Cineflix wanted to do the Canadian version,” Cozens continues. “A number of people were contacted, one of whom was Sheldon because he had been on the Canadian Antiques Roadshow. He was asked to make recommendations as to who to hire. He recommended some names, including me. He put his name down with me and we did an audition.”
“At the time American Pickers wasn’t available in Canada,” Smithens adds. “The show was described to me and it was pretty much an instant success in the United States and that’s why Cineflix pitched successfully a Canadian version of the show.”
“I’m not sure how I got the phone call on suggestions for casting but Scott and I have been friends for quite some time and I think we got along well enough that I thought this might be a reality if we were the hosts and indeed that’s the way it turned out.”
The rest as they say is history – and on History.
The fact Smithens and Cozens knew each other going into taping and production was definitely beneficial to them for a number of reasons, including their comfort level when it came time to doing the programme.
“We didn’t really even know what we were doing,” Cozens candidly admits. “Even when we first got the job and did our first day of filming we really had no idea what to expect at that point in time but it certainly did help, and does help, that we get along well. We like each other and in particular what I think is the most interesting thing about the show is how different we are.”
And when it comes to reality TV, differing opinions and attitudes makes for a much more entertaining show for viewers and broadens the focus of possible scenarios that are able to play out within any given episode.
“Scott and I have different interests but it means that we cover a really broad spectrum of merchandise and that’s a huge asset,” Smithens notes.
Both men confirm that nothing the viewer sees visually on screen, or in terms of what the viewer sees when it comes to Smithens and Cozens buying or talking about items, is anything but the natural progression of things for them as they really happen. In other words, what you see is authentic and not in any way staged as some reality shows have been known to do.
“We didn’t intend to look different or like different things – that’s just the way we are,” Cozens says.
As previously touched upon, Cozens is a lawyer by profession, so needless to say doing a national television show eats into his time spent with clients. How does he manage to balance everything?
“My wife and I are both practicing lawyers in our own small firm so I manage to balance filming with law primarily by downloading all my responsibilities on my wife,” Cozens laughs. “She runs the house and the law firm while I’m away filming.”
Admittedly, Cozens says it’s much easier nowadays thanks to technology, so if a major issue arises he always has a laptop with him so he can answer emails and even do briefs if necessary.
The interesting hobby of antiques and picking began for both of them many years ago and so each has had his fair share of dealings and an innate ability to quickly ascertain what may be a hidden gem and what is nothing more than garbage.
“I started early because my mom also used to be in the antiques business, working for a rival auction company of Sheldon’s, and I say rival in the kindest terms because they got along very well.” Cozens says. “I was introduced to auctions, flea markets and antique stores through my mom probably from about the age of eight.”
Picking, et al, became far more serious for Cozens by the mid 1980s when he found himself spending a lot more time doing it. For Smithens, being third generation in this line of work means it’s old hat for him.
“I was 25 years old and had just completed university and joined the family auction firm and became a licenced auctioneer,” Smithens notes.
In Alberta, to become a licenced auctioneer it’s a requirement that you go to an auction school, which is quite a bit more rigid and demanding than it is anywhere else across the country. If there is an upside to that approach it’s that those who go to the bother of getting their licencing obviously have a true passion for being in this line of work and it brings their professionalism and knowledge to the forefront. There are valid reasons for it being a tougher industry to get into in Alberta according to Smithens.
“It’s a much larger industry primarily because it also includes the cattle industry involved with auctioneering and automobiles and that sort of thing,” Smithens remarks. “Alberta happens to be the second oldest established auctioneers association in North America so it’s a little bit more rigidly structured as far as licencing. In most provinces you hang your shingle; in Alberta you hang your shingle after you’ve jumped through several hoops.”
Further to his background, Smithens’ family had a weekly auction house where they did roughly 50 auctions per year on a regular basis and then they somehow managed to find time to coordinate additional antiques and art auctions, bankruptcies, liquidations of all sorts, Canada Customs, provincial government and the city of Calgary.
“By the time it was all done, we probably sold between 60 and 70 auction sales a year for all sorts of interests but my specialty evolved into antiques and art,” Smithens says.
Scenic Tour of Canada
Smithens, Cozens and the filming crew have pretty much been to every major region in Canada through the first three seasons with the exception of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. They’ve been on picking excursions through all 10 provinces.
“We’re also not just talking about the major centres, we’ve gone into the backwoods of every province as well,” Smithens reveals. The goal is to try and do one or two episodes per year to every area they visit. With only 13 episodes per season, there’s no way for them to hit every region throughout the country for two episodes.
As we spoke with Smithens and Cozens they had just wrapped their third season of episodes and the first episode of Season Three aired on August 27. That first episode was actually taped back on January 13. In the first year, filming was done between July and December, the second year was done between June and November and this year it went from January to August.
For an expert with a keen eye for detail, picking can be a very lucrative endeavour. But it’s not for everyone.
“It depends if you’re good or bad,” Cozens chuckles. “We were talking about a show we watched recently on TV I think was called Market Warriors and thankfully we do much better on our purchases than they did on theirs.”
It’s most often a crew of 10 that makes the trek across Canada to do the filming including the camera people, an assistant, a sound man, director, two personal assistants and of course the two on-air people.
Both Smithens and Cozens take great pride in how diversified the viewing audience has been.
“We’re delighted by the feedback we get from the public, “ Smithens states. “Initially we were told our demographic was going to be men aged 25 to 49 but once Scott and I are out there in public we’re getting everything from grandmothers to young girls and people that tell us they watch the show as a family, so in other words we don’t have a demographic. I’m quite proud that our show seems to appeal to a very broad audience.”
In the U.S. there are shows such as Storage Wars, Pawn Stars and American Pickers, and others seemingly coming on board, but up until now, Canadian Pickers is still one of a kind in our country.
“We take pride in the fact that we’re Canadian and showing Canadians what Canada is all about.”
They’ve also both noticed how being on television has made them instant celebrities.
“There’s no denying our lives have changed in that respect in that you really can’t go anywhere now without being recognized,” Cozens says. “We both come from the school that if someone wants their picture taken with us, we’re glad to do it.”
With 39 episodes now in the can, do either Cozens or Smithens have a favourite episode to date that stands out?
“I can tell you without question for me it was last episode of Season Two where they showed our auction sale,” Cozens replies. “That to me was the best, because unlike some other shows, it actually showed us selling our product and hitting it big on some and losing money on other ones. There’s no fabrication there.”
Cozens also admits the fact his wife and kids were in one of the scenes of that episode also makes it very special. That episode stands out for Smithens as well.
“We also just recently completed an episode in the Yukon. It’s remote, it’s so different and off the beaten path, so it also comes to mind.”
Again, new episodes of Canadian Pickers air Monday nights at 8 pm on History Television.