The Big Business of Thrift TV

21 EMMY REALITY Pawn Stars stars
Joey L./History channel

Corey, Rick and Richard Harrison, the three-generation stars of History's program.

Once there was just History's "Pawn Stars." Now there are 15 knockoffs as the new hot genre finds an audience -- and maybe, possibly, academy respect.

As reality stars go, Rick Harrison lacks the tabloid buzz of Jersey Shore, the gaudy flash of The Real Housewives and the do-goodery of Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution. But he carries far more impressive value: making the History channel the latest envy of the reality business.

Pawn Stars, which chronicles the bizarre diurnal goings-on of Harrison's family-run Las Vegas Gold & Silver Pawn Shop, is this year's No. 1 show on cable among the all-important 25 to 54 demo, regularly garnering more than 6 million total viewers and helping to turn a network once known for dusty World War II documentaries into a top-five cable net.

While it owes its simple general premise to PBS' Antiques Roadshow, which first crossed the pond in 1997, Pawn Stars has provided a contemporary, personality-driven spin for a generation of viewers reared on such blue-collar reality shows as Deadliest Catch, Ice Road Truckers and previous Emmy nominee Dirty Jobs.

Since Pawn Stars premiered back in recession-era 2009, it has spawned at least 15 knockoffs, including Spike TV's Auction Hunters, Nat Geo's Auction Packed, Discovery's Auction Kings and TLC's What the Sell?! (also from Pawn's producers).

Even History has found ways to exploit the genre it labels "artifactual entertainment," with American Pickers and American Restoration averaging an impressive 4.7 million and 3 million viewers, respectively.

"Whenever you see a TV phenomenon, we as an industry have a history of pushing the boundaries of how far that theme can go, for better or worse," says History president and GM Nancy Dubuc. "There were the weight-loss shows, the dancing shows, the singing shows and now the pawn shows."

As is typical in the copycat universe of reality programming, a broadcast iteration is next for the pawn movement as NBC plans to roll out the game show It's Worth What? this summer. Created by early Roadshow host Lara Spencer and peddled as Antiques Roadshow meets The Price Is Right, it will look to re-create that fascination with discovery and value in broad network form.

Of course, reality television has long reflected the very subculture it seeks to entertain. Recall the raft of house-flipping and house-decorating shows that permeated network schedules during the real estate boom. Or the downsizing -- even foreclosure -- themed series that followed as the market reversed course. That the onslaught of thrift shows came next is only natural.

At their core, these programs center on an optimistic premise: The "stuff" collecting dust in your house might actually be worth something. "Look, people hear things like, 'Will the dollar have any real value to it?' and they start to think, 'What do I have in my attic or my garage?' " says Pawn Stars creator Brent Montgomery. "People like to think they have a winning lottery ticket."

But Dubuc stops short of calling the pawn and pickers fare recession television. In fact, she argues the genre's rise should not be attributed to the economy as it relates to buying and selling, but rather to viewers' desire for simplicity, or as she puts it, "comfort food in our television."

TruTV executive vp and GM Marc Juris, who has had big success with Hardcore Pawn, agrees. As he sees it, the subject matter appeals to viewers because it not only "provides relatable fantasy" but also offers an inherent story arc. It begins with the item; then the suspense of what it is worth; the valuation; and, finally, either conflict or delight.

"In a single transaction, it has all of the elements of a great story," he says. (Juris notes that Hardcore Pawn was in development at the same time as Pawn Stars; the former was simply slower to air.)

Whatever the reason for the cultural fascination, the popularity of these programs is undeniable. Could the next phase be Emmy recognition?

With eight-time nominated Antiques the exception, pawn-themed shows have not yet landed on the academy's radar, though that is likely to change as programmers such as History roll out ambitious campaigns in the trades and consumer press. Among them: "For Your Consideration" ads for Pawn Stars that say, "If you give us an Emmy, we promise not to sell it."

Retaining the present momentum without reaching saturation is another priority for networks and producers alike.

But Montgomery acknowledges that the proliferation of copycats that once frightened him now gives him confidence. "It has actually showed the broadcasters that the audience appetite for these hidden-treasure shows is much wider than any of us would have guessed," he says.  

12 REALITY CONTENDERS: THR picks the strongest candidates in competition and nonfiction.

  • The Amazing Race (CBS)
  • Antiques Roadshow (PBS)
  • American Idol (Fox)
  • Dirty Jobs (Discovery)
  • Dancing With the Stars (ABC)
  • Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution (ABC)
  • Project Runway (Lifetime)
  • MythBusters (Discovery)
  • Survivor (CBS)
  • Pawn Stars (History)
  • Top Chef (Bravo)
  • Undercover Boss (CBS)