Reality TV: THR's 50 Most Powerful List
The radiator in the corner of Brent Montgomery’s cramped office on the 23rd floor of a grungy building on 8th Avenue in Manhattan’s Midtown West is knocking and hissing. It’s late February, and Montgomery — who produces Pawn Stars for History — and David George and Rob Shaftel, Leftfield’s vp programming and vp development, respectively, are debating titles for an upcoming National Geographic Channel series about New Hampshire demolition experts. In front of them is a list of 130 possible show names compiled from input among Leftfield’s nearly 300 employees.
“An intern actually came up with the name Pawn Stars,” says Montgomery. “He didn’t want to stay in the business. But he got a signed poster and a big place in my heart.”
With more than 5.7 million viewers on average for each episode, Pawn is the most-watched series on History. Spinoff Cajun Pawn Stars — launched last year and filmed in Alexandria, La., a small town 3 ½ hours northwest of the decadence of New Orleans — is pulling in 3.2 million viewers on average. Pawn Stars — and Leftfield’s ribald double entendre title — has inspired dozens of pawn-shop knockoffs including TLC’s Pawn Queens, Spike’s Flea Man and truTV’s Hardcore Pawn, perhaps the most blatantly derivative of the bunch.
In the case of the Nat Geo demolition show, Leftfield is mining territory familiar to close watchers of reality television; TLC’s The Imploders and Spike’s demolition derby Carpocalypse have already come and gone. Leftfield’s twist on the concept is similar to A&E’s Storage Wars; the demolition experts are
blindly bidding on structures targeted for demolition in hope that there is something (copper wire, vintage cars, jewelry) inside.
The title “Demolition Roulette” elicits a round of shrugs. “Smash for Cash” sounds like a game show, and “Money Pit” conjures a home improvement show.
Montgomery scans the list: “I wonder if these people have ever watched TV.” He stops on No. 91, “Questionable Content: The Search for Storied Treasure.” “That person,” he says, laughing, “should be fired.” In fact, Montgomery, 37, has fired few people since Leftfield became a player in the reality space after selling its first series — truTV’s The Principal’s Office — in 2008.
“For a while I thought I’d never fire anyone, that only crazy executives do that,” he says. But a few years ago, he had to deliver his first pink slip after finding out one of his employees offered marijuana to a participant and also erased footage. Apparently it was all in an effort to impress a female participant. Montgomery won’t name the person.
Pragmatic and straightforward, he rarely deviates from his casual Friday uniform of jeans and neatly pressed shirt (tucked in). His demeanor stands in contrast to the fast-talking glibness of many industry peers. But he has the canny charm of a salesman. “If we disagree, he listens,” says Courtney Montgomery, Brent’s 32-year-old wife and Leftfield’s head of production. “But I don’t just get to overrule him. He’ll say, ‘Convince me.’ ” Working with your spouse “is not for everyone,” she adds, and a stipulation was that their offices be on “opposite” sides of the floor. “I don’t want to be in that office right next to him,” she says, “but to be able to see him for part of the day makes a difference.”
Brent Montgomery approaches the task of wrangling heretofore anonymous characters for potential reality series fame with the same candor and inclusiveness. “I always say, ‘Never lie to talent,’ ” he says. Pawn might owe a debt to PBS’ Antiques Roadshow, but its indelible characters — led by the cagey Rick Harrison and his irascible father, known as “the old man” — have distinguished the show from its forerunner and the other dangerous-job, male-targeted reality shows (Ice Road Truckers, Deadliest Catch). “On Pawn, the guys basically do nothing,” says Montgomery. “They stand around, and they talk. Everybody was having success in the male genre with action. We said, ‘Let’s do humor.’ ”
Last year, Pawn was the second-highest-rated reality series on cable behind Jersey Shore; a January 2011 episode from the fourth season was watched by 7.7 million viewers, still an unmatched record for History. Montgomery’s collaborative nature has earned him fans among TV’s top execs. “He’s the last guy to call me and complain about an overage on this or a note on that,” says Nancy Dubuc, president and GM of History and Lifetime Networks and Montgomery’s frequent breakfast companion.“That kind of creative give-and-take is refreshing.”
Montgomery had early aspirations to become a sports reporter. After earning his bachelor’s in journalism in 1997, he relocated to New York, where he landed a production assistant job on Fox Files, the network’s nowdefunct primetime newsmagazine that Montgomery describes as “Dateline on crack.” In 2003, he picked up and moved to Los Angeles, where he landed a gig producing the syndicated series Blind Date. It was while shooting a “date” in Santa Monica that he had an epiphany about the L.A. temperament.
“We’re shooting on the beach. My camera guy is feeding the birds. My sound guy is talking to girls. I’m like, ‘Don’t you guys want to get this done?’ ” (Happy to be based in faster-paced New York, Montgomery nonetheless is in the throes of returning to Los Angeles; he’s scouting office space with an eye toward opening a Leftfield satellite by year’s end.)
In early May, a little less than two months after that initial meeting about the Nat Geo demolition series, the network announced that it had ordered 12 half-hour episodes of Bid & Destroy, a title that conspicuously did not appear on the long list for consideration. Jokes Montgomery, “It’s a working title.”