FEF: “Pawn Stars” anatomy examined

History's hit series Pawn Stars got a closer look at Factual Entertainment Forum in Santa Monica yesterday, with History execs and Leftfield Pictures producer of the show, Brent Montgomery, examining what made it work.
June 3, 2011

(Photo: Rahoul Ghose)

History’s hit series Pawn Stars got a closer look at realscreen‘s Factual Entertainment Forum in Santa Monica yesterday, with History execs and Leftfield Pictures’ executive producer of the show, Brent Montgomery, examining what made it work.

The session kicked off with the original sizzle tape for Pawn Stars, which alreadly showed the characters and sense of humor that has made the series so successful.

Before Montgomery had even approached History, Charles Nordlander, the network’s VP, development and programming,  said that Nancy Dubuc, president and GM of History and Lifetime Networks, was already figuring that someone needed to do a pawn show. “Nancy had said, ‘You know what we should do, but it’s not for History –someone ought to be doing ‘Palm Beach Pawn Shop,’ and we said, ‘that’s a great idea, but not for us,’” Nordlander recalled. “We didn’t know it could be male-skewing until Brent came in.”

Nordlander, who was the VP of the pilot and had previously explored doing something in the gun shop space, determined that what Pawn Stars needed was an Antique Roadshow spin, which Montgomery says made the show.

“We were also looking into the family business space,” said Nordlander. “They were great characters and you get an inkling from that tape, even though a lot of it wasn’t right for the channel, you got what could work. It was a risky proposition because [at that time] the male docusoap was Deadliest Catch, life on the line, big jeopardy [programming] and this didn’t have it.”

Internally at History, execs were describing the series as Antiques Roadshow meets American Chopper. “Until Pawn Stars came along, it wasn’t something that viewers associated with History – being entertaining,” added Nordlander.

Mary Donahue, VP, development and programming for History and current VP of the series, says it was the humor that pulled her in. “It was deadpan and reactive humor and not sitcom and ‘yuck,’” she said.

The success of the show has led to a number of derivative series, which Montgomery says happened because it was a genre that wasn’t tapped into. “People like to think they have something in their backyard or garage that is worth more than they thought,” he said.

Donahue added that timing also played a role. “The recession was at its worst and as Brent said, there’s a treasure in your house that could make your dark skies sunny. After I took over, after Charles did the pilot, I went home and looked at all of my stuff to see what I could sell,” she said.

The panelists also shared the battle it took to keep the title of the series. An intern told Montgomery the name and he loved it, while the showrunner hated it. “We brought it to History, [and] Julian [Hobbes, VP of development and programming] said ‘I love it, but we’ll never get it through.’ Nancy [Dubuc] got it through.”

If Dubuc hadn’t pulled the bait and switch, History viewers would’ve seen a series called Pawning History. “My colleague Rob Sharenow [now EVP programming for Lifetime Networks] said that the title alone was worth a mega-million [dollar] marketing campaign,” said Donahue.

Montgomery said that at a previous Realscreen Summit, before the series hit big, Donahue asked him if he was going to be ready for the success, as with Pawn Stars, every exec was watching.

“When it crossed to 1.5 [million viewers], we were dancing in the office. Nancy said get that show to a two. We did. Get it to a 2.5. We did,” recalled Donahue.

To date for 2011, Pawn Stars is the number one series on cable among adults 25-54 and averages 3.4 million viewers. 
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Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.