Pawn Stars, the top cable reality show, may be the most revealing series of our age
Over-tanned teenagers with poufy hair, White House party crashers, forgotten members of The Brady Bunch, washed-up '80s rockers: These are the gods of the reality television pantheon. Now Peter Brady and Bret Michaels must make room for three unlikely newcomers: Rick Harrison, his father Richard, and son Corey. The proprietors of Gold & Silver Pawn Shop are the leading men of the History Channel's Pawn Stars, which happens to be cable's top-rated unscripted show. Yes, Pawn Stars outdraws Jersey Shore—and it's making the somnolent History Channel, a network previously known for Hitler documentaries and Ice Road Truckers, one of cable's hottest networks.
Conveniently located less than two miles from the Strip, the 24-hour Gold & Silver has become an unlikely fixture on the Vegas tourist scene. Buses pull up first thing every morning and disgorge hundreds of people hoping to watch others trade their junk for cash. Before the History Channel began airing the show, in July 2009, the shop averaged between 70 and 100 customers per day. That number has now grown to more than 1,000. As a result, the Harrisons have hired nearly 30 new employees and are expanding their showroom by two-thirds, to 15,000 square feet. They've even installed misting machines to cool waiting customers. If this strikes you as surprising, you're not alone. "We hoped the show would help business," Rick Harrison says. "We thought we'd get a season or two. Now we're talking about Season 4. It's kind of amazing!"
It shouldn't be so surprising. Reality television mimics the culture more closely than many would like to admit. When the housing bubble was in full swing, Americans fixated on shows about buying, decorating, and flipping houses for quick profit. The interest even led to a show about an NFL wide receiver-turned-decorator—though Keyshawn Johnson: Tackling Design wasn't renewed. Bravo built a lucrative franchise around high-living housewives, and MTV brought us the travails of spoiled young adults from Laguna Beach to Hollywood to Manhattan.
As Americans now cope with mortgages that exceed the value of their homes, it's natural that a show about people hawking their effects for fast cash has taken off. Pawn Stars, which resumed its third season last week, takes audiences to the heart of the recession—Las Vegas, the American city hardest hit by foreclosures and unemployment. "This is about people deleveraging and trying to get out of debt," says David Halle, a popular culture professor at the University of California at Los Angeles. "It's a little more relevant now than shows about how to become a real estate millionaire."
It doesn't hurt that the Harrisons look like extras from The Sopranos and bicker like Marge Simpson's sisters. They also happen to be very good at their day jobs. Rick Harrison has a knack for wresting prized possessions—Civil War muskets, 200-year-old Scottish daggers, and Mickey Mouse rotary phones—from his customers at cut-rate prices. In a recent episode, a woman tried to sell a U.S. flag taken to the moon aboard NASA's Apollo 16 mission. A flag from an earlier moon landing, the audience discovers, fetched $23,900 just months before. After some haggling, however, the woman settles for $4,000. Despite the discount, everyone seems content. "I'm very happy with what I settled for," the woman says into the camera. "I can head to Paris, France."
Not every transaction works so seamlessly. In the show's July 2009 pilot, the owner of a woodworking shop tried to pawn a 3,000-pound table saw. The device, retailing for $20,000, was to be the collateral for a $7,000 loan. When Harrison was unable to turn the device on, the woodworker was forced to settle for $4,500. "I need the money; times are slow right now," he said plaintively. However, desperate moments are often left off-camera. "It's embarrassing when you need quick cash," Rick Harrison explains. "Most customers who are in that situation don't want to be on television."
Like many reality programs, Pawn Stars was born out of curiosity. Brent Montgomery and Colby Gaines, principals of Leftfield Pictures, were in Las Vegas for Gaines' bachelor party weekend in 2008 when they were struck by the city's array of eclectic and somewhat seedy pawn shops. Assuming these shops were filled with unique characters, they searched for a family-run business to build a show around. They soon found the Harrisons and filmed a pitch tape.
Their timing was perfect. Just more than a year earlier, Nancy Dubuc had left A&E to become president of the History Channel with a mission to counterweigh the network's battle anniversary tributes with more confectionary original content. Dubuc picked up Pawn Stars but fine-tuned its story line to adhere to the network's brand. On-camera experts consult on the sales of historical items, such as pawned Kennedy papers, corporate iconography, and high-end NASA tchotchkes.
Though Dubuc didn't discourage the renegade antics that have made reality TV so popular. In a recent episode, Rick Harrison sends an employee on an impossible mission: Get Bob Dylan to autograph a copy of the album Self Portrait before a gig at Caesars Palace. The employee stalks the casino's grounds until he spots Dylan walking to his tour bus, where he accosts him.
"How did you find me here?" asks Dylan. "I heard you were doing a show and I just figured I would walk around until I found you," says Chumlee, the employee. The reclusive star chuckles, then scrawls "To Chumlee, Bob Dylan" across the record sleeve. The item isn't for sale.
It's unclear what a strengthening U.S. economy will do to Pawn Stars, but knockoffs are already hitting the small screen. The appallingly titled Hardcore Pawn recently debuted on truTV, and it's possible a copy-cat version of the show may be coming to network television, according to Mike Darnell, who oversees reality programming at Fox (NWS). "We're big fans," says Darnell. "We believe there's a network play for that type of show." If Keyshawn Johnson has proven anything, there is.