Reality TV in America has become synonymous with turning stale, cookie-cutter concepts into faux-thrilling productions, using slick editing, scripted actors, and other techniques to keep you glued to the screen. Show producers love to high-light big personalities instead of engaging content, and Americans are endlessly pumped with a kaleidoscope of meaningless reality shows that in fact are scripted productions.
A new show "Ancient Pickers" that is blowing up in the Middle East has a different problem. The show and its characters are not actors, and the action is so real that American Networks won’t air the program on cable television.
The cast includes three guys from Washington state, that on the face of it don’t have anything in common.
Phil Fischer, a software developer and one-time rock star is now a Jesus freak who preaches the gospel out of a tent. Julian Valentine who was once a bartender at one of Seattle’s trendiest nightclubs is now an advertising executive at Seattle Advertising. Jefferson Elliot, a friend of Chris Pratt’s and an amazing painter, all live semi normal lives back home in the Seattle area.
It turns out they do have one thing in common, a fascination for Gold.
Their part time hobby as international treasure hunters has unexpectedly turned into the most watched reality show in the Middle East, but if you live in the states you’ll probably never see it.
The executive producers of "Ancient Pickers", a hodgepodge of Bellevue millionaires who sent a cameraman to film the trio for three weeks in the Middle East were told by the five major American networks that in order for the show to "qualify" on network cable, the producers would have to edit out almost 85% of the footage and deliver to them a “diluted” and “scripted” version to be eligible for American audiences.
Some of the footage that the "Ancient Pickers" crew has been asked to remove include two scenes of armed combat with militants in Syria, a poker game that turned into a knife fight in Jericho, and several border crossings into war torn regions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
One scene in particular that the networks are adamant about removing is a two-minute stretch of electrifying footage that took place in the Syrian Desert near Al Tanf, a border town that runs along the Jordan and Iraqi/Syrian border. Attempting to flee with some artifacts that the trio had dug up, Fischer and Valentine engaged in a brutal gun fight with a group of desert scavengers in a narrow valley 14 miles out of Al Tanf.
The suspenseful few minutes was caught entirely on two Go Pro cams’ manned by Elliott.
In a narrow desert valley with gunshots whizzing into the dust inches away and angry Arabic chanting in the distance, the trio slowly made their way through the desert basin where they are eventually trapped under an outcropping of rocks.
One of the most touching and moving scenes of the entire episode is actually not a scene at all, but some eerie audio the go pro mic captured of a conversation between Fischer and Valentine. Trapped in the basin, with the cams hanging from Elliot’s backpack, the audio records Valentine asking Fischer that if he should make it out alive, to watch over his wife and son. Fischer can be heard saying “of course” and asking Valentine to do the same while promising the trio that they will make it out alive “Somehow, Someway”.
Then there are ten long chilling seconds of silence while a Go pro focuses on sand blowing around Valentines hiking boot with the only sound being the wind and the occasional gunshots with Arabic taunting in the background.
The three were doomed at the hands of the desert pirates, but at the last possible second a single gunshot hits a few inches from the trio and you then can see a few seconds of a lone Gray US Reaper drone flying low over the militants who at once desert the trio and drive off in a broken down Toyota.
It is surprising that all three of them made it out alive and watching a USAF MQ-9 Reaper drone flying twenty feet off the ground through the eyes of a dirty Go Pro was unbelievable. After the narrow escape Fischer entrusted the SD cards to a Bedouin guide who delivered the footage to the pickers three days later in the safety of Hotel International in Amman, Jordan.
When contacted for comment about why such an expensive piece of military equipment just happened to be near the exact spot where the pickers were trapped, an Air Force representative at the Pentagon speaking on the condition of anonymity refused to confirm or deny the incident but did offer that “The United States Air Force routinely has drones in the area monitoring activity and we will from time to time perform low altitude surveillance of anything deemed interesting”.
While the pickers for the most part have evaded serious injury, Elliot did end up spending 12 days in a Pakistani prison while suffering the whole time from a saw-scaled viper bite which caused bleeding from his ear drums before Fischer bartered for his release giving him only a few short hours to get Elliot to a hospital in Islamabad to save his life.
While the networks are too scared to air the show in the US, several major studios located overseas see the value in the "Ancient Pickers" brand, and according to Audie LaPier who is the shows PR and IT guru, "It's like Indiana Jones meets Pawn Stars but with guns in the mix! I think Phil and Julian are done with the reality thing, they never wanted to do it anyway and the networks are to strict.”
But that is not the only game in town and the Middle East has less restrictive standards.
According to the Neilson ratings and United Arab Emirates Tview, the shows first two episodes pulled in almost 18 million viewers with each episode rating a 178.08. That is 12% higher than Al Jazeera, proving that consumers want real action and they don’t want scripted reality. A line on a map would be the last thing to hold these adventurers back from their gold, and the show is filled with raw footage of “deals” and late night desert tent parties hosted by Bedouin “Desert Kings” where the frankincense smoke is so thick you can barely see anyone.
One scene that the crew themselves edited out was a drunk Elliot in Pakistan trying to get onto a camel occupied by Fischer. The attempt eventually failed and the both of the pickers including the Camel fell sideways into the tent causing minor injuries to some Bedouins in the tent.
The Camel was not injured.
When reached for comment Julian Valentine said “This all started when one of the producers from Bellevue met Phil in Jericho a few years ago and since then they were relentless in striking a deal with us. We did not even come up with the name “Ancient Pickers”, that was the producers idea. Phil and I are treasure hunters. We don’t want to film our digs and we kept explaining to them that the places we go to find 4000-year-old treasure in Syria is not the place you take a film crew if you know what I’m sayin?”
When reached out for comment in London, Elliott emailed “It’s not about the money. It was never about the money. We never wanted to make a reality show.” Elliott continued “We’ve turned down several seven figure offers from producers and for Phil, Julian, and myself it’s always been about preserving ancient artifacts that are literally being destroyed by war. If they really want to produce a reality show with us then they need to do a real show and not censor our footage to death, that's just never gonna happen,” says Elliott.
Elliot also told one of our producers that the cameraman the producers sent to film the crew in Iraq, lasted about three days before quitting.
According to Elliott, on the fourth evening of shooting, as the crew was sneaking over the Iraq border through the Qandil Mountains, they happened upon a Bedouin camp where the native Bedouins were preparing dinner. Since hospitality in the Middle East is everything, Fischer asked if he could assist in “gutting a goat” for the evening feast to pay for the crew's stay that evening.
When Fischer returned to the tent with three Bedouins and a skinned goat hanging from a bloody stick, the cameraman had reached his boiling point and began to panic and demanded to go home, leaving Fischer and Valentine to depend on Elliott to shoot the rest of the episodes on a couple of Go Pros.
Fischer commented about the incident by phone in Bellevue “It’s customary in Syria and Iraq for a stranger entering a camp at sunset to help in some way because they are going to take care of you all night because that is the custom. Especially if your white. Since we had no money, I offered to help skin this animal and I did not know it was going to freak out the camera guy."
Fischer continued "That's why we ended up shooting the entire first Season on Go Pro cams and Jeff’s DSLR. The cameraman complained that he was not prepared to shoot in such scary conditions, which we all thought was funny. Sitting in a 104 degree tent all night with twenty guys smoking Egyptian black that was laced with hash and opium probably did not help the situation either”.
Fischer an avid part time archeologist, has always kept his infatuation with locating and preserving ancient Christian artifacts very private but according to Alexander Pulvermakher, one of the owners of Elegante Jewelry in Bellevue, Fischer has spent every penny he’s earned in the internet industry digging up and trying to preserve artifacts that are being destroyed by war.
Several people in the middle eastern antiquities industry, as well as Pulvermakher, who occasionally sells some of Fischer’s “non-artifact finds” speculates that Fischer had finally found some of the remains of the ancient palace of Sargon of Akkad, who ruled Mesopotamia in the 23rd century and the palace has always been rumored to be near Ur, the ancient city that according to the book of Genesis is the childhood home to Abraham.
“If Fischer has indeed found the Temple of Sargon, which I think he has, there would be more gold probably just sitting against the walls in clay pots then actual artifacts. I don’t even want to speculate how much gold there is, but there was an entire civilization of sixty thousand that lived there” Pulvermakher said by phone in Seattle.
The bible named the city Ur Kasdim in the book of Genesis and Fischer is believed to have discovered the room that was actually one of the three inner chambers of the palace used by Enheduanna, who was one of Sargon’s daughters and the high priestess.
At its peak the city of UR had a population of 65,000 and it was eventually destroyed by the Elamites. Shortly after, the town suffered several droughts that caused the city to dry up and countless treasures were left behind. The city is now smack dab in the middle of an Iraqi war zone and if Fischer has indeed located the temple of Sargon of Akkad near UR one can understand why he would want to keep it quiet.
According to Pulvermakher, since 2013 Fischer has been sending every artifact that the trio finds from the site to museums in Tel Aviv and they have been cataloging and storing the items at several locations throughout Israel. Pulvermakher said that ancient Mesopotamian’s would often store artifacts in the same chamber used to store raw Gold.
Regardless, don’t expect to see Ancient Pickers on screen anytime in the near future unless the American networks loosen their rules and or Elliott agrees to “water down” the footage.
Until a deal has been struck with networks, the executive producers announced on Friday that the website ancientpickers.com has been taken down and replaced with a temporary holding page to ensure that none of the footage of the two episodes that were posted on the site doesn’t leak out.
The promotional trailer put out by the executive producers scheduled to air in theaters nationwide has also been pulled.
Until then America will have to be entertained by scripted reality shows and wait for a “real” reality show to hit the market.