Inside the amazing world of A&E’s ‘Hoarders’

HER OWN PRIVATE JUNKYARD: Last fall’s season premiere of “Hoarders” on A&E featured “Adella,” who has turned her backyard (and side yard and front yard) into a junkyard. Photo: A&E/Screaming Flea Productions


NEW YORK, Jan. 24, 2011 — How on Earth do they make A&E’s “Hoarders”?  It’s a question that occurs often to the 2.1 million astonished viewers on average who have made this deeply disturbing documentary-style reality series the second highest-rated non-fiction series on A&E (after “Storage Wars”).

“Hoarders” is the show about very distressed people who live amid clutter and filth that is so serious they now face the threat of eviction, condemnation, divorce or abandonment by family members – which is why the “Hoarders” team is called in to help restore order and avert these crises.

“Hoarders,” produced by Seattle-based Screaming Flea Productions, has been so successful that it has spawned a slew of imitators (most notably “Hoarding: Buried Alive” on TLC).

With its third season about to come to a close with the shocking story of a California man who hoards live rats, we thought this would be a good time to talk to the show’s executive producer to learn how this show finds its subjects, enlists their cooperation and cleans up their messes.  Here’s what the executive producer, Jodi Flynn, had to say on the phone from Seattle:

So much that’s shown on this show is just plain gross – from the great trash piles to the mummified corpses of dead cats beneath them.  Is there anything you won’t show?

We try to be as real and honest as we possibly can.  That said, if there are things that are just [too] difficult to watch, we won’t linger on them.  We won’t zoom into a super-tight shot and stay on it for 15 seconds.

How do you locate your subjects?  Do you hear from neighbors, authorities, relatives, the people themselves?

All of the above.  We get submissions through our Web site and we have some people who are self-submitted – that’s probably the fewest.

You don’t take just any hoarders though.  They have to be facing eviction or a similar imminent crisis in order to be on the show, isn’t that right?

The format of the show is built around people who are in a real crisis.  I’m sure there are a lot of hoarders out there who you would define as being in a crisis even if they technically weren’t being evicted or someone wasn’t leaving them.  But for our purposes, we created the show to help people who really had to get cleaned out within a few days, otherwise they were facing drastic consequences.

Can you assess the show’s success rate, if any?  How many of the subjects go right back to hoarding as soon as you and your clean team leave the premises?

It really varies.  For us, a success really is that we helped somebody avoid the disaster that they were facing – like they’re not getting evicted, for example.  To try to gauge their success based on YOUR idea of a clean house, or mine, is really kind of unfair to them.  For us, it’s trying to get them past that immediate crisis so that they can try to get themselves back on a path that will be better for them in the future.  And to that end, we provide after-care once we leave to help them stay on that path.

Besides trying to avert eviction, isn’t one incentive for these subjects a practical one – that the show pays for the cleanup?

That’s exactly the incentive.  These are enormously expensive cleanouts.  If people were to call [“Hoarders” partner in refuse collection] 1-800-GOT-JUNK or [‘Hoarders’ clean-up consultant] Matt Paxton’s company, Clutter Cleaner, these cleanouts can cost tens of thousands of dollars.  There are no costs to the people who appear on our show.

Are you finding that there really is no shortage of subjects?  Every community seems to have that guy down the street with all the junk in his yard, isn’t that true?

There is no shortage of subjects.  We get literally thousands of submissions.

The chicken hoarder on last week’s episode, the combustible Hanna, was a pretty tough subject.  So was the truculent husband Gary in last week’s rabbit-hoarding story.  Can you point to any single subject in the 40 episodes you’ve produced who was your most difficult?  Was it Hanna?

There have been some really difficult ones from a production standpoint.  I think that, from a viewers’ standpoint, Hanna was probably one of the most difficult.

She was really temperamental.  Have there been subjects who were so threatening that you actually had to leave the location without collecting the footage you needed?

Amazingly enough, never.  And honestly, we have been waiting for that to happen.  And it has never happened because someone was too difficult to deal with.  We did have one where they cleaned up before we got there.

In other words, they realized they were having company in, so they thought they’d clean up the mess you were coming there to photograph in the first place?

Yes, so we didn’t do it.  But we’ve never had anyone just be so difficult and so hateful, or anything like that, that we couldn’t.

By now, the crews you send out to these locations are probably accustomed to just about anything.  But in the case of Monday night’s rat hoarder, for instance, did your crew report back and say to you, ‘This one really took the cake!  We quit!’  Anything like that?

No, my crews would never quit!  We use the same people over and over again, and everyone loves doing the show.  These are people who love a challenge.  I haven’t had a single person quit.

How did you get rid of the rats?

The lengths that we had to go to to get the rats out [was] unbelievable.  We worked with the Humane Society, which was a first for us and it just went unbelievably well.  We literally tore down walls and sawed off bathtubs because they were everywhere.

Did he have a house left after you were done?

I mean, there’s a structure [but] not much.  But if you don’t get ’em out, they’re just gonna keep eating it.

So you made this choice to do it humanely when, let’s face it, if exterminators were called and this wasn’t a television show, they’d do something like gas the house and kill them all, wouldn’t they?

I don’t know.  We don’t do that kind of thing.  We brought in special trucks.  We had a special facility built up in northern California where [the rats] were taken to.  They’re being adopted out by rat rescues all over the country.

There are “rat rescues”?

Yes, a shocking amount of rat rescues in the country.  They totally stepped up to help with this.

To your knowledge, is the rat man still living with rats?

He wasn’t living in the house anyway [because of the rats].  He was actually living in his shop which was on the property so he’s not back in the house yet, but we’re working on it.

The season finale of A&E’s “Hoarders” airs Monday night at 10/9c.

Contact Adam Buckman:


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