'Storage Wars'(Courtesy 'Storage Wars')

On the 'Storage Wars' set.

A couple of years ago, Storage Wars' producer Thom Beers was at an auction for storage locker contents when he realized what was really inside those lockers.

Ratings.

The storage company was auctioning off contents of lockers that had been abandoned by the renters. As each box came out of a locker and was put up for auction, the mystery contents became a source of instant anticipation among the crowd.

"I went to the auction with no cameras, just went on a Saturday afternoon, and I said, 'Oh my God, this is like crack. I get this.' "

As any fan of "Antiques Roadshow" already knows, potential treasure is the stuff of TV magic. And storage lockers, it turns out, are an endless source of junk — and occasionally treasure.

Los Angeles, Calif.-based Beers had long known there could be money in people's throw-away stuff. Before he'd attended the auction, he'd sent a staffer to follow one of those 1-800-Got-Junk trucks around for a week. Most of what he learned was just depressing, but he caught a glimpse of something special when he learned the truck made several trips to abandoned storage lockers.

His discovery that Saturday afternoon at the auction lead to the creation of "Storage Wars" — A & E Network's biggest reality hit. It's so successful that Beers — who's already a production pioneer of macho-reality TV shows such as "Deadliest Catch," "Monster Garage" and "Ice Road Truckers " — has coined a name for the new genre: "Recycled reality television."

It's an offshoot of recessionary TV, a fact of TV programming that occurs whenever there's an economic crisis. TV shows about downsizing have become hugely popular, and Beers has been at the forefront. Now, there is an onslaught of such shows, such as Spike TV's "Auction Hunters," Discovery's "Natural Born Dealers," TruTv's "Hardcore Pawn," and History Channel's "Pawn Stars." Then there are the shows about hoarders who downsize with the help of therapy.

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Beers believes timing was everything.

"The economy was hit very bad here, and a lot of storage containers of are up for auction," he explains about the show, which is set in California, but is about to go into other cities as well.

The concept for such a show wouldn't have worked a few years ago, says Beers.

"I think it's about the times. In the flash times of the '90s and early 2000s, when everybody was fat and had plenty of money, this wouldn't have worked. People would have said, 'Who cares? Just throw it all away.'

"For about at least 10 years, we were in a highly consumptive mode, we bought everything not nailed down. Now we are looking back and saying, 'I cannot afford anything new. What did I buy in that decade of junk? What trail of chaos did I leave behind me?' "

And it truly was a decade of junk. Beers says it takes a lot of shooting to find anything considered treasure. The stars of the show are actual treasure-hunters he found while researching for "Storage Wars." Only his long-time friend Barry Weiss, who is the most charismatic and outlandish of the stars of the show, was an inductee to the storage locker game. Beers and Weiss share a lifelong passion for collecting cars and antiques, and over drinks one night Beers proposed the idea that Weiss join the real-life cast. Weiss exudes movie star appeal, even though his background is reportedly in the import-export produce business.

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The storage locker game is a lot riskier than produce. One of the biggest challenges is finding actual treasure.

"You pray that's what happens, but I'll be honest — for every locker we focus on, they probably bought another six or seven that contained nothing interesting. We will film for five days and pick the best stories out of the five. There is a lot of crap in these lockers."

The lockers you want, says Beers, are the ones where people have abandoned their stuff because they've gone more upscale.

"They've done well in life and want new furniture. They've left the old antique furniture that belonged to mother. That's what you're looking for."

Unfortunately for the storage hunters, it's more often the case that college students left their junk behind because they can't afford the monthly payments. Beers says sometimes the lockers are filled with junk due to hoarding. Others simply forget about it. Beers received notice about his own mother's storage locker after she'd died. The storage company was getting ready to sell her stuff because they'd had a hard time tracking him down.

They usually give three months notice, he says.

All's fair in storage wars.