Let’s get this out of the way: The name Screaming Flea Productions (SFP) is not a reference to the conditions commonly seen on Hoarders, the popular reality show the Seattle-based company produces for A&E. Though the SFP team is all too familiar with infestations—and other unpleasant consequences of living amid piles of newspapers and herds of cats—the branding is simply a metaphor for a small entity making a big noise. With Hoarders, the 20-year-old company is breaking the sound barrier.
Matt Chan, founder and president of Screaming Flea, reports that when the series launched in August 2009, “It was A&E’s biggest premiere ever.” The network asked SFP to rush production on the next 13 episodes. In December 2009, the second-season premiere drew 3.2 million viewers, representing a 46 percent increase over the first season’s average, and was the most-watched telecast on the channel that year. At press time, SFP was completing production on Season 3 (which may begin airing as soon as this month), feverishly editing as many as 130 hours of raw footage per episode down to tidy segments for the hourlong time slot.
So how did this happen? As with all shows SFP produces (a list that includes Sell This House on A&E, Three Sheets on the Fine Living Network, and dozens of others for Discovery Channel, TLC, Biography and elsewhere), Chan says, “We start with a blank sheet of paper.” In their unassuming offices in Georgetown, the core staff of 35 has regular meetings to come up with ideas for shows to pitch to the networks. “We’re continuously brainstorming,” says Chan, “seeing what’s on TV, what’s working and what isn’t working.”
The guiding question of all of these sessions is: What makes a great show? Chan, who has been working in television since 1975 (including as president and general manager of Belo Productions, from which in 1999 he purchased a division that became SFP), thinks he has a pretty good idea. “The simpler the concept, the stronger the show,” he says. In addition, as with any storytelling medium, there has to be a sympathetic character and something must be at stake. “Something has to be at risk,” Chan says, “to make a good story.”
The SFP team had seen the success of the A&E show Intervention (in which an addict is confronted by friends and family trying to help). They had also all seen evidence of hoarders around town—houses with junk piled up against windows and spilling onto porches. “Seattle has a lot of hoarders,” Chan contends, attributing this in part to the Northwest weather and the consequential hunkering down.
The SFP team decided to profile hoarders who are at a crisis point—their kids or animals are about to be taken away, or they’re about to be evicted. The Biography channel ordered a special, about which Chan says, “Once I saw it, I knew it would be big.” Right after the special aired, A&E ordered the first season. “It’s just so compelling,” Chan says of Hoarders. “Because it hits very close to home. Everyone either knows a hoarder or knows the tendency. People’s emotional attachment to things is very strong. We’re just seeing the outer reaches of that tendency.”
The outer reaches are a frightening place to visit. These are not run-of-the-mill slobs—these folks have a serious compulsive disorder. If you haven’t seen the show, visualize: people living amid stacks of papers waist (or neck) high, unable to throw them out because of a warped reasoning that sees potential value in the most trifling of objects; people cohabitating with upwards of 50 cats (dozens more if you count the dead ones); people using adult diapers because the bathroom is no longer accessible—and hanging onto the soiled results.
Senior producer Bert Klasey, who often works in the field on shoots, says, “When it comes to these houses, nothing shocks me anymore. I don’t know if anything smells worse than a house with 70-plus cats—many alive and many dead—in New Mexico heat….But it’s still very hard to see children and animals living in those conditions.” He says the team copes via a combination of gallows humor and “an endless amount of Purell.”
Viewers must find ways to cope as well. “Watching the show, people tend to stop breathing,” Chan says, which is why the episodes always contain one lighter story and one heavier one. “For example, one hoarder whose home is a biohazard and one who collects Santa Clauses,” he says. “The viewer needs a break.” Audiences vent by debriefing the show on Twitter, as well as cleaning up their own homes (in that sense, Chan jokes, “We like to think we’re providing a community benefit”).
SFP also provides a real asset to the subjects of the episodes: psychological counseling throughout the process of emptying out their houses, as well as ongoing therapy after the production team leaves the set. “This is a very tough, embarrassing situation for [the hoarders],” says Klasey, “and the fact that they are reaching out to get help and improve their lives in a very public way is admirable.” Adds Chan, “We always make sure the budget allows us to do it right.”
Hoarders has been such a success that SFP has plans for a spinoff, tentatively titled Extreme Clean, which Chan says will be a lighter show. “It’s kind of Jackass meets Clean Your House,” he says. It follows young guys who do distressed-house cleanup because they are basically otherwise unemployable. Also in the works, a show on A&E called $100 Makeover and five profiles for Biography.
Meanwhile, Hoarders continues to thrive, and SFP hunts for more stories. “The holy grail for us are hoarders under the age of 30,” Chan says, explaining that the hoarder demographic tends toward older people. “We also strive for diversity….But Asians are tough to find,” he admits, possibly because of the cultural emphasis on not “losing face” or bringing shame to the family. Presented with the prospect of finding an Asian hoarder under 30, Chan says, with unabashed excitement, “That would be like finding a unicorn.”